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.


[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.


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 regime," 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 We’ll be back next month with another Kellogg Insight podcast.