Music can’t actually control your mind, but by the time you’ve finished reading this, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking it could. We’re all aware that listening to music can alter our moods, but like textures and smells, its range of potential effects turns out to be a little startling.
For example, research has shown that…
…turning up the music volume in a bar led to the customers drinking more quickly and ordering more drinks.
…when a romantic song had been played in the background, young women were more likely to give their phone number to a young man who asked for it.
…when exposed to unfamiliar music, individuals spent more time shopping.
…listening to music with violent lyrics made volunteers more aggressive.
…when music was played on a shopping website, viewers’ moods improved and they liked the website more.
…playing French music in the alcoholic beverages section of a British supermarket resulted in customers buying more French wines, while playing German music led to them buying more German wines.
Feeling mind-controlled yet? There are dozens more, most focussing on how music can increase purchasing. The good news is that studies have also shown that the right music can inspire empathy, generosity and helpfulness.
In one set of experiments, Tobias Greitemeyer asked volunteers to listen to and evaluate two songs before carrying out other tasks. Half the volunteers heard two songs whose lyrics had previously been judged to be “prosocial” while the other half heard two neutral songs. Not only did the volunteers who had heard the prosocial songs respond more empathetically to stories about other people’s hardships, they were more likely to donate their payment for participating (€2 – about $3) to a non-profit organization.
In other research, Greitemeyer again had volunteers evaluate prosocial or neutral songs but told them afterward that the study was now over. It wasn’t, of course: the participants were then given the opportunity to do good in various ways, such as by helping someone pick up a container of spilled pencils, or volunteering for a charity. In every situation, the participants who had heard the prosocial music were more likely to help.
Most recently, Greitemeyer did a similar study looking at aggression. It turned out that listening to songs like Heal the World and Help not only reduced his study participants’ feelings of aggression, it reduced the likelihood that they would behave aggressively when given the chance.
These studies all involved volunteers who paid attention to the songs being played to them, so they might not apply to the real world. However, another study found that playing prosocial songs as background music increased the tips given to two restaurant servers. So, it might make a difference for you, too.
Pick your titles carefully, though. Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah or The Smiths’ How Soon is Now? may sound positive, but they will not inspire helpfulness, unless it’s helping someone find a bridge to jump off. Listen first.