Can music manipulate your mind?

The composer Franz Liszt spoke of music as a ìdivine tongueî while Billy Joel once referred to music as an ‘explosive expression of humanity’. Indeed, it’s true that some of our most moving experiences can come through music and the world over music plays a significant part in people’s lives. While we often experience music through the happy solitude of headphones, cultures across the world often use music as a means of creating deep bonds between people, as the each member of the community plays sings or dances, contributing a small part to a grander – pardon  the pun – harmony. Either way, we all have songs that can make us smile on dreary days, songs which can cause our breath to catch and songs which seem to infuse us with an unknown vivacity. But with such a powerful influence on our emotions can music be used to manipulate the way we think?

Think of a simple cheery tune, like ‘When the Saints go Marching In’, or one of the ‘fight songs’ sung by various colleges and halls of residence. Chances are it’s in a major scale, or at least uses major chords or steps in the parts which really give it its rousing, feel-good tone. Likewise, wistful and sad songs, like the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’ uses minor modes, chords and progressions to draw us in, and catch our hearts in our throats.

Major and minor are simply terms which refer to the relationship between the notes which are played and thus the tensions and harmonies which are created. Amongst musicians, it has long been a well known fact that the use of different modes would elicit different emotional responses. As far back as 1722, the influential French composer Jean Philippe Rameau wrote that ‘The major mode is suitable for songs of mirth and rejoicing, tempests and furies’ or ‘tender and gay songs,’ and for ‘grandeur and magnificence’. The minor mode, meanwhile, is suitable for ‘sweetness or tenderness, plaints, and mournful songs’.  There is an ongoing debate whether such emotionally matched responses are learned or innate, but regardless, there is overwhelming evidence that something as simple as hearing a minor or major chord can have a profound effect on our mood. Based on this simple principle, most casino slot machines play a C-major triad when telling gamblers to ‘try again’. Studies have shown that even in the midst of loosing streaks, hearing the perky noise prompts pleasurable responses in gambler’s brains. Such responses help create a sense of renewed optimism for the next pull and, by providing an unconditional dose of pleasure, may even serve to connect pleasurable feelings with the simple act of gambling, rather than with whether the gambler wins or not.

It’s not only casinos that have picked up on the powerful way music can influence our impulsive decisions. Corporations often utilize the power of music to create suggestive and appealing advertising. Here, things go much farther than what mode is used:  neuropsychologist Stephen Levitt argues that long before the discovery of written language, our early ancestors used music to store and share verbal information. The fact that music could be catchy and easily draw on the empathy of the listeners may have also served to make it a great way for early humans to advertise their genetic fitness – by drawing others in with their music.

Advertising draws on both these attributes of music to great effect. Any one who has learnt their ABC’s by singing them to the tune of ‘twinkle twinkle little star’ knows of the way music can help us retain thoughts. As a song gets ‘stuck’ in our head, so do its lyrics. Advertisers draw on this to create catchy jingles that will embed their company’s name, and often number, address or website, firmly in the minds of listeners. Likewise, many commercials also leverage the fact that music can often seem to convey an emotion and understanding beyond words, and can thus draw deeply on our capacity for empathy. Many adverts take to making rational, factual claims in a reassuring and authoritative voice, while more emotive claims are sung, or backgrounded with music. Thus, commercials for more impulse buy items – such as cola or consumer electronics – will rely heavily on catchy, accessible, music, while a spot for life insurance may eschew music altogether. Others, such as car ads will mix the two strategies, using music to convey the pleasure of buying their new vehicle, and an authoritative voice, lacking music, to highlight the current financial incentive on offer.

But the use of music in advertising is even more sophisticated than this: advertisers will often play on the specific nuances of a piece of music to conflate the emotional satisfaction you get from the music with their own product. One of the basic principles of musical composition is that of tension and resolution. Simply put, the notes in any scale are interrelated in such a way that even without hearing the root note of the scale, the root note is implied, by the distances between the other tones. Because all the other notes are chosen for their relationship to the root note, hearing the root note is psychologically satisfying. Likewise, moving away from the root note, to more dissonant tones creates musical ‘tension’ and a desire for resolution to a more stable harmony. As with, say, chocolate, creating an expectation, and then perhaps even ‘withdrawing’ the promise, will intensify the desire for the resolution – or the chocolate.  Other notes, such as 3rds and 5ths create a sort of partial resolution – the equivalent of having a tiny taste of chocolate, or catching a strong whiff. To a certain extent, the greater the tension created, the more satisfying the resolution. A study of several music-heavy ads showed that advertisers were shrewd, and timed the ‘reveal’ of their product, or the display of their logo with the resolution in the music. Thus the satisfaction gained from the musical resolution was also associated with seeing the product, or hearing the brand name.

All of this doesn’t mean that you should suddenly become guarded every time you hear a catchy advertising jingle, however. After all, countless musicians have claimed that music is a language unto itself, which goes beyond what words can express. All advertisers have done is learn to speak this language, albeit in some very canny and shrewd ways. By being aware of the different ways music can speak to us in everyday life we can come to a better appreciation both of the ways we think, and of the power of music.


Farhan Samanani