It is hard to go too long without hearing music. Music can wake us in the morning and brighten up our commute. Music greets us at coffee shops, department stores, bars, and gyms. Music teaches us the alphabet and implores us to fall in and out of love. Yet, despite the central role that it plays in the lives of so many people around the world, we are still learning about music’s transformative effects on the psyche.
In a recent article, a team of researchers investigated one potential effect of music: psychological empowerment. Their research question was simple yet intriguing: Could listening to the right kind of music—even in the background—make us feel more powerful and in control?
“Empowering music might be used strategically to get us in the right frame of mind.”
Certainly many athletes believe in the power of music. “Rituals exist in all sports,” says Derek Rucker, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management. “One ritual we have noted is that athletes often arrive at the stadium wearing earphones. And these athletes often emerge from the locker room to the sound of music pounding. It is as if the music is offering a psychological coat of armor for the competition about to occur.” Dennis Hsu, a faculty member at the University of Hong Kong who received his PhD at Kellogg, adds, “Stadium crowds are stirred and fired up by deafening music way before the competition actually takes place.”
Given these ubiquitous athletic examples, the researchers were curious about whether music really did provide a type of psychological armor. So Rucker, Hsu, and three colleagues—Loran Nordgren, an associate professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, Li Huang, a Kellogg graduate now on faculty at INSEAD, and Adam Galinsky, a former Kellogg professor now at Columbia Business School—designed a series of studies to find out.
“Get Ready for This”
The researchers first identified which music is likely to empower its listeners and which would leave them feeling cold. Their process was straightforward: They brought people into the lab, played them a number of songs, and simply asked them to rate on a seven-point scale how powerful, dominant, and determined the songs made them feel. The winners—Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” 2 Unlimited’s “Get Ready for This,” and 50 Cent’s “In Da Club”—were compiled into a “high-power” playlist. Three other songs, similar in style (sports music and hip-hop) but rated as less empowering, became the “low-power” playlist.
Then, a new group of participants listened to either the high- or low-power playlist as they completed different tasks. In one experiment, participants were shown word fragments like P _ _ E R, which could either be completed as a word related to dominance (e.g., POWER) or as an unrelated word (e.g., PAPER). Sure enough, those listening to the high-power playlist were more likely to complete the fragment using power words than those listening to the low-power playlist. Because participants were instructed to complete fragments with the first word that came to mind, the study suggests that the empowering effects of music may be somewhat unconscious and automatic.
In the subsequent experiments, the researchers tested whether empowering music makes people behave as if they are, in fact, more powerful. “One thing we know from prior research is that people who feel powerful tend to make the first offer in negotiations. Essentially, power is a propensity to act, to take charge of the situation,” explains Rucker. After listening to music, participants were asked whether they would prefer to go first or second in a debate. Indeed, those who listened to the high-power playlist opted to go first almost twice as often (34%) as those who’d listened to the low-power playlist (20%).
So what is it about powerful music that makes it so … powerful? In their final experiment, the researchers investigated one particular musical feature—the level of bass—by creating heavier- versus lighter-bass versions of the same songs. Listeners found the bass-heavy versions more empowering than the low-bass ones, both consciously and unconsciously. Why is this the case? Perhaps we are hardwired to associate booming tones with large, powerful objects and experiences. Think Darth Vader. “He was one of the most intimidating and formidable screen villains that we’ve ever had, and he had that very deep bass voice to signify his unsurpassed presence and dominance,” explains Rucker. Or perhaps the bass notes get under our skin and make us feel large and powerful. Whatever the reason, the researchers believe the level of bass is only one of many musical qualities—volume, tempo, genre, and lyrics, among others—with the potential to affect our experience of empowerment.
Jams in the Workplace?
The research suggests that music’s ability to pump us up may indeed have utility outside of the stadium. “Just as professional athletes might put on empowering music before they take the field to get them in a powerful state of mind,” says Rucker, “you might try [this] in certain situations where you want to be empowered.” Perhaps you have a meeting scheduled with your boss or an important client. Or perhaps you have a job interview. Previous research by Rucker and colleagues found that feelings of power lead to better performance in interview situations. “Empowering music might be used strategically to get us in the right frame of mind.”
The researchers hope these studies pave the way for expanded investigations into music’s impact on our minds and behaviors. This is work that might be of value to both managers and retailers: “What we want to know is when does music have an effect on employees, and when should I care about it as a manager? Equally important, when should I not care about it?”
Advertisers, too, should take note. “Given that music can have psychological triggers, what you want to do in your advertisement is align with how you want your consumer to think and feel.” says Rucker. And more broadly, research should not limit itself to music. We can also consider how other environmental cues affect our behavior. Aparna Labroo, a professor of marketing at Kellogg, has noted, for instance, that turning up the lights can intensify emotions.
But for now, don’t be ashamed to rock out to empowering tunes—in the shower, in the car, or while preparing for that job interview.
Artwork by Yevgenia Nayberg