Podcast: How Music Can Change Our Mood
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Marketing Feb 10, 2018

Pod­cast: How Music Can Change Our Mood

A Broad­way song­writer and a mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor dis­cuss the con­nec­tion between our favorite tunes and how they make us feel.

Music can change our mood.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research and insights of

Derek D. Rucker

Loran Nordgren

Kris Kukul

Listening: How Music Can Change Our Mood

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Music can be pow­er­ful. It can change our mood, and, research shows, even change our behavior.

In this pod­cast, we talk with pro­fes­sor Derek Ruck­er about his research on pow­er songs and how they might shape the way we behave after we lis­ten to them. Then we talk with Kris Kukul, a Broad­way music direc­tor and orches­tra­tor, who helps us under­stand how music is craft­ed in order to elic­it an emo­tion­al reaction.

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Pod­cast Transcript

[Music Intro­duc­tion]

Jes­si­ca LOVE: All right, pod­cast lis­ten­ers! We are jump­ing around the office right now, feel­ing ener­gized and ready to go! Because who can resist that song, right? 

But how exact­ly is this song affect­ing us — beyond an office dance par­ty? How is it chang­ing how we feel and how we act? Sure we’re pumped up, but does that feel­ing actu­al­ly change our behavior? 

The answer is yes, accord­ing to research from Kellogg’s Derek Ruck­er and Loran Nord­gren.

Derek RUCK­ER: We found, indeed, some types of music did in fact lead to peo­ple say­ing, Yeah, I felt more pow­er­ful after lis­ten­ing to this music than others.” 

LOVE: That’s Derek Ruck­er, talk­ing about his research. 

It’s all about the feel­ing of power. 

We’ll be talk­ing about this and more on this month’s Kel­logg Insight podcast. 

[Music Inter­lude]

LOVE: Wel­come to the Kel­logg Insight pod­cast. I’m your host, Jes­si­ca Love.

Today we’re explor­ing the inter­sec­tion of music and emo­tion.


First, pro­duc­er Emi­ly Stone talks with Ruck­er about his research on pow­er songs and how they might shape the way we behave after we lis­ten to them. Then she talks with Kris Kukul, a Broad­way music direc­tor and orches­tra­tor, who helps us under­stand how music is craft­ed in order to elic­it an emo­tion­al reac­tion. Because if you’re not cry­ing in Les Mis or laugh­ing in The Pro­duc­ers, then some­thing has gone wrong.

So stay with us. 

[Music Inter­lude]

RUCK­ER: Does pump­ing up the jam essen­tial­ly evoke with­in you a sense of pow­er? Can it make you feel more powerful? 

How does that affect our behav­ior as human beings? 

Emi­ly STONE: That’s Derek Ruck­er again. He’s a pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at Kel­logg and has long been inter­est­ed in pow­er. Specif­i­cal­ly, he stud­ies what feel­ing pow­er­ful, or pow­er­less, does to our psy­ches and to our behavior. 

The idea to take this line of study into the realm of music came from a shared inter­est among the researchers — in football. 

RUCK­ER: As play­ers come out of the tun­nel, you see this mas­sive erup­tion from the crowd, but that’s also accom­pa­nied by a lot of music. What we won­dered is, well, that music, what role does it have? 

We’re all foot­ball fans, so that’s where we start­ed. But it’s true of soc­cer match­es. It’s true of hock­ey. Music is part of all those venues and we want­ed to know, what does that do to the psyche? 

STONE: Ruck­er teamed up on the research with Nord­gren, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at Kel­logg, as well as Adam Galin­sky, for­mer­ly of Kel­logg and now at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, and their then PhD stu­dent, Den­nis Hsu. 

First, they iden­ti­fied some songs that were asso­ci­at­ed with a sense of power. 

They asked stu­dents to rank songs on a scale of 1 – 7 based on how pow­er­ful, dom­i­nant, and deter­mined the music made them feel. The win­ners were Queen’s We Will Rock You,” 2 Unlimited’s Get Ready for This,” and 50 Cent’s In Da Club.” Those three songs com­piled the researcher’s high-pow­er playlist. 

They also picked three oth­er songs that were enjoy­able and sim­i­lar in style, but not asso­ci­at­ed with pow­er. Those became the low-pow­er playlist. 

Then the researchers had a group of par­tic­i­pants lis­ten to either the high-pow­er or low-pow­er songs while com­plet­ing a word task. Par­tic­i­pants were giv­en frag­ments of a word — for instance, P_ _ ER — then told to com­plete it. 

The songs in the back­ground? They made a difference. 

[Music]

Those lis­ten­ing to high-pow­er songs were more like­ly to spell a word relat­ed to strength and con­fi­dence, like POWER (“pow­er”), while those lis­ten­ing to low­er-pow­er songs were more like­ly to spell an unre­lat­ed word, like PAPER (“paper”).

In anoth­er exper­i­ment par­tic­i­pants were asked if they would rather go first or sec­ond in a debate. Those lis­ten­ing to the high-pow­er songs opt­ed to go first almost twice as often. 

So music — at least in the lab — can make some peo­ple feel more pow­er­ful. But what does that mean in terms of behavior? 

RUCK­ER: Where we’re fas­ci­nat­ed is, well, how does that change the psy­che? How does it feel to expe­ri­ence, I have the abil­i­ty to com­mand,” ver­sus, I have to take orders”? We’ve looked at a num­ber of dif­fer­ent behav­iors. I’ll start with one of my favorites that I didn’t do, but Adam Galin­sky did, and I thought was fan­tas­tic. He looked at the notion that when we’re empow­ered, we are more like­ly to take action. 

STONE: In this exper­i­ment, par­tic­i­pants are told to either write about a time they felt pow­er­ful or a time they felt pow­er­less. But while they are writ­ing, there’s some­thing else going on, too. A small fan has been posi­tioned to blow direct­ly and annoy­ing­ly in their face. 

What they didn’t know is that the fan is the key to the experiment. 

RUCK­ER: What he found is that peo­ple who had sim­ply writ­ten about a time they were pow­er­ful as opposed to pow­er­less were more like­ly to push away the fan and move it of their own accord. It’s this notion that pow­er trig­gers action. 

STONE: In oth­er research, Ruck­er and coau­thors have looked at how feel­ing pow­er­ful or pow­er­less changes the way we com­mu­ni­cate with oth­ers, and how we want to be com­mu­ni­cat­ed with. 

RUCK­ER: Peo­ple who are more pow­er­ful or expe­ri­ence a state of pow­er, they’re more like­ly to focus on com­mu­ni­cat­ing com­pe­tence like why things will work, how they will get done. And they’re more recep­tive to mes­sages that empha­size competence. 

STONE: In con­trast, the researchers found, peo­ple who feel pow­er­less are more like­ly to empha­size sin­cer­i­ty and warmth in their com­mu­ni­ca­tions. And they respond bet­ter to mes­sages that have these qual­i­ties, too. 

RUCK­ER: That’s an exam­ple where this sense of hav­ing pow­er or not direct­ly affects our behav­ior, trans­forms us, because it affects what we care about. When we have pow­er, we feel that we’re advan­taged, and there­fore we can act with agency and act with regard to our own beliefs. When we lack pow­er, we actu­al­ly are depen­dent on oth­ers, almost defini­tial­ly. The idea is that it turns us to oth­ers and makes us want to be inclu­sive of others. 

STONE: Mov­ing back into the realm of pow­er and music, Ruck­er says there is still much to learn. To start with, how do these find­ings trans­late from the con­trolled con­di­tions of the lab into the real world? 

RUCK­ER: Because now it’s going to be com­pet­ing with lots of oth­er fac­tors. I sus­pect it’s not a mat­ter of, it always does or it nev­er does, but are there sweet spots in which it makes a dif­fer­ence? When you go to the gym and you’re not feel­ing like work­ing out, can that be the dif­fer­en­tia­tor that push­es you: Okay, now that the song is play­ing, I am going to work out,” or, You know, now that it’s play­ing, I am going to spend a cou­ple extra min­utes and fin­ish up my rou­tine because I’m fin­ish­ing the song”?

STONE: Oth­er fac­tors to con­sid­er, Ruck­er says, include what our intent is in lis­ten­ing to a cer­tain pow­er song. Per­haps the song is even act­ing as a place­bo when you decide whether to gut it out on the treadmill. 

RUCK­ER: the music may not even do any­thing. You might still be feel­ing doubt­ful, but in your head, you’re like, Okay. Now that I’ve played the music, I’m com­mit­ted.” That’s a very dif­fer­ent rea­son for an out­come, but may still be equal­ly important. 

STONE: Anoth­er top­ic for future research is when peo­ple can — and can’t — use these pow­er songs strategically. 

RUCK­ER: What kind of behav­iors can it affect and what kind of behav­iors can it not affect. 

For exam­ple, if you said, All right. I’m on the fence. Should I go to the gym today?” All of a sud­den, the right song comes on. As opposed to more long-term things like, Okay, let me try to plan my fit­ness régime,” it’s like, well then you’re going to sit down and you’re going to think about it. The music that hap­pens to be going on when you’re plan­ning that may have far less consequence. 

[Music inter­lude]

STONE: So music can make us feel pow­er­ful. But music has a much broad­er emo­tion­al range than that. And where bet­ter to explore that idea than in musi­cal theater. 

[Music Inter­lude]

STONE: Part of Kris Kukul’s job is to make sure that the songs in musi­cals elic­it the right emo­tions from the audience. 

Kukul works as a musi­cal direc­tor, arranger, and orches­tra­tor. Those are actu­al­ly three dif­fer­ent jobs, but all work in con­junc­tion to cre­ate songs and deter­mine the music’s feel and struc­ture — then bring it all to life for an audience. 

We talked to Kukul about his work via Skype. 

Kris KUKUL: In terms of elic­it­ing an emo­tion­al response, the opti­mal sit­u­a­tion is that the actor pro­vides the emo­tion, and the music responds to it. 

The thing that we try to avoid is that the music tells the actor what to feel. If there’s some sad music play­ing, and then that char­ac­ter becomes sad because of the music, that’s not the best-case scenario. 

STONE: Kukul has worked with David Byrne on Joan of Arc: Into the Fire,” and he’s also worked on the the­atri­cal adap­ta­tion of Shake­speare in Love.” He is cur­rent­ly the orches­tra­tor on the forth­com­ing Broad­way adap­ta­tion of the Tim Bur­ton movie Beat­le­juice.”

When it comes to elic­it­ing emo­tions, much of what an audi­ence hears in a song is pret­ty uni­ver­sal. A lul­la­by will sound calm­ing or mourn­ful to us all, just as a John Philip Sousa march will feel rousing. 

KUKUL: It’s the choice of tem­po; it’s the choice of what instru­ments you want to play the song. You can play a song on a gui­tar and cel­lo that is a beau­ti­ful, sweet, sim­ple song, and you can take the same melody and the same chords and stick it on a bunch of trum­pets and a tim­pani, and all of a sud­den it becomes a vast­ly dif­fer­ent animal. 

STONE: But it’s not quite so easy. Each of us is aware of the songs we’ve heard in the past and our emo­tion­al response to a new song some­times hinges on that set of asso­ci­a­tions. That can leave us emo­tion­al­ly unmoved if what we’re hear­ing sim­ply sounds like the same old song.” 

KUKUL: It’s try­ing to approach some­thing that has been done before, but to do it in a new way. So if some­body has a moment that is a moth­er singing to a son about grow­ing up, that moment has been done a thou­sand times. So how do you approach it dif­fer­ent­ly, and how do you make the gui­tar sound dif­fer­ent than it did when you saw it in that one oth­er musi­cal that you saw it in? You know what I mean? 

So maybe cyn­i­cism can play a part. So if there’s a song that maybe is sen­ti­men­tal, every­body rec­og­nizes the emo­tion that it’s sup­posed to be or to give, but you can either go with it and buy it,” or you think it’s phony. 

STONE: But that sense of famil­iar­i­ty can work to a composer’s advan­tage, too. 

KUKUL: If you want to write a song that is like a Beach Boys song, how do you do that with­out actu­al­ly writ­ing a Beach Boys song? You have to give enough infor­ma­tion so that the audi­ence can rec­og­nize, Oh, I hear that instru­ment; there’s a guy singing in falset­to for that lit­tle bit that sounds just like that thing, but the rest of the song is its own animal.” 

STONE: Of course, what sounds emo­tion­al­ly famil­iar to an audi­ence can vary quite a bit by cul­ture or geography. 

KUKUL: I worked in Greece for many years, and Greek music is very sad, and there’s a lot of melo­dra­ma wrapped up in their cul­ture and in the the­ater and in the music. And there’s a sort of con­tained emo­tion­al­i­ty that hap­pens in Amer­i­ca that if you try to do that in the Mediter­ranean, they don’t under­stand why you’re not scream­ing and cry­ing and singing big high notes, and singing with every mus­cle of your body. 

STONE: But even with­in a sin­gle cul­ture, know­ing how an audi­ence gen­er­al­ly reacts to music does not mean there’s a per­fect for­mu­la for con­jur­ing up a spe­cif­ic emotion. 

KUKUL: There isn’t real­ly a mag­ic recipe. I mean, there are ele­ments that you could put in things to elic­it respons­es. You can put in a dri­ving gui­tar that can make you feel excit­ed, and there are chord pro­gres­sions that you can fol­low that build up the antic­i­pa­tion and build up to the release of that big note or that moment in the song where it all comes together. 

But again, part of the task is find­ing a way to elic­it that response in new ways. If some­body took Let It Go” right now as a mod­el and just tried to have a song that did the same thing, it would seem like an imi­ta­tion. Because we’ve already felt that from that piece of music. 

STONE: Full dis­clo­sure: I’m the one who brought up Let It Go.” My kids love that song, so I lis­ten to it a lot. 

And even fuller dis­clo­sure: I love it, too. It makes me feel GREAT when I hear it. 

But, Kukul cau­tions, there are lim­its to those feel­ings from an audi­ence. You can’t just ham­mer home one emo­tion over and over again. Frozen” would not work if it was all Let It Go.” 

KUKUL: If you’re feel­ing bom­bard­ed, peo­ple have a ten­den­cy to shut down. So that the thing you’re look­ing for, for peo­ple to open up and let that emo­tion­al thing in, if you’ve reached a point where the music has been a thou­sand per­cent for like 25 min­utes and peo­ple are just done, they’re nev­er going to let the next thing in. And it’s nev­er going to set­tle in, and they’re nev­er going to real­ly con­nect with the emo­tion the way you want them to, if they’ve got­ten to a place where they’re like, Eh, I’ve had enough.” 

[Music inter­lude]

LOVE: This pro­gram was pro­duced by Jes­si­ca Love, Fred Schmalz, Emi­ly Stone, and Michael Spikes. It was writ­ten by Emi­ly Stone. 

Spe­cial thanks to our guests, Derek Ruck­er and Kris Kukul, as well as to Scott Brown for putting us in touch with Kris. 

You can stream or down­load our month­ly pod­cast from iTunes, Google Play, or our web­site, where you can read more about pow­er dynam­ics and cre­ative process­es. Vis­it us at insight​.kel​logg​.north​west​ern​.edu. We’ll be back next month with anoth­er Kel­logg Insight podcast. 

Featured Faculty

Derek D. Rucker

Sandy & Morton Goldman Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies in Marketing, Professor of Marketing, Co-chair of Faculty Research

Loran Nordgren

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

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Pod­cast: How Music Can Change Our Mood

A Broad­way song­writer and a mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor dis­cuss the con­nec­tion between our favorite tunes and how they make us feel.