Coffee shops, retail stores, spas, and gyms are all well-known to have music or radio stations playing in the background music since certain genres can influence their customers by energizing or relaxing them.
This effect can also benefit museums, art galleries, or exhibitions, as the right music can influence how guests physically move through space, remember the artwork before them, and feel about the overall experience.
Curating Music for Your Curated Exhibit
As a curator, you may want to use an online streaming music service like Spotify or Pandora to get music, and this can be a good place to start. On your personal account, you can find out more about genres or artists who may suit your space. However, you cannot use your personal music streaming account to actually play music in the gallery, exhibition, or museum.
This is because playing songs to the public, especially if they are paying visitors, is considered a public performance of that work. However, there are several services that offer the right licensing to stream music in a business, including a museum, exhibition, or gallery.
How Background Music Influences Our Feelings, Memories & Bodies
Playing background music is a great way to set the mood of an area. Some studies suggest background music can also improve concentration. These effects occur because parts of the brain respond to rhythm, syncopation, and melody.
Monotonous sounds or even silence might be a good way for museum, exhibition, and gallery visitors to focus, but you might be able to enhance their positive feelings and ability to concentrate with music that has a combination of strong beat and slightly more “chaotic” sounds from other instruments. Music activates both the left and right brain at the same time, adjusting one’s sense of time, space, internal rhythm, and mood all at once.
The brain has two basic systems that regulate our attention: a conscious system and an unconscious system. The conscious system enables our direct focus on specific tasks, like reading information about the history of a painting. The unconscious system essentially runs in the background, taking in information and bringing only important points to our consciousness.
For example, if someone walks close to you, you will know to get out of their way as you see them in your periphery and hear their footsteps closer to you. Meanwhile, the sights and sounds of other people around you fade more into the background.
Some studies suggest that the rhythm of background music can lead to physical syncopation. Breathing and heart rate become more aligned as the regular beat of the song affects the subconscious.
Generally, low volume music can fade into the background and not consciously disturb those listening; it only subtly affects their movements and behavior. However, when the mind becomes aware of music, having more than just a strong beat can help improve mood.
For example, a metronome might cause you to move to its rhythm, but when you are aware of just that sound, it can become tedious or annoying. Music like rock, funk, and jazz has enough unusual “chaotic” sound on top of a strong rhythm to keep the listener interested.
Using background music in a museum, gallery, or exhibition not only elevates the mood of your guests and sets the tone for the display you present, but it can also change how guests move through the physical space and how connected they feel to the works presented.
These emotional and physical changes can influence how guests focus on the work, enhancing what they remember of the experience.
Best Genres of Music for Art Galleries, Exhibitions & Museums
One of a curator’s most important jobs is to ensure a flow through the exhibition. This could be based on chronological time, allowing visitors to move from the earliest painting to the most recent, or it could be based on theme or art style.
There are several ways to approach curating for museums and galleries. This skill can benefit how you, as the curator, view the music that will be played during the exhibition.
Choosing a genre or era of music can enhance the overall flow of the exhibit in the museum or gallery. For example, if you are showing Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, or artists from the 1950s or 1960s, playing instrumental versions of pop songs from the time not only sets the mood and tone for the gallery show, but it also gives insight into the pop culture context that might have influenced these artists. In contrast, an exhibit of classical works from the Renaissance or Enlightenment will benefit from gentle, classical music.
Sometimes, opening an exhibition with a live DJ or band, regardless of the artworks presented, can bring in younger people who feel more engaged with a party-like atmosphere. At the same time, this can comment on how the artwork might have been viewed when it was originally created.
Music can be an important component of curating an exhibition, gallery show, or museum area. Use your curatorial skills to think about the music that influenced the painters, the culture around them, and what might set a relaxing or energizing tone for your museum visitors and staff.
Options for Purchasing Music for Your Museum, Exhibition, or Art Gallery
When you search for music to play at your gallery, exhibit, or museum, there are several options, but you should focus on companies that either offer royalty-free/rights-free, Creative Commons, or commercial licenses for music.
Here are some of the top music streaming services that might offer what you seek:
- SoundCloud: Although this platform focuses on personal streaming services, many songs are published under a Creative Commons license, so they can be free to use in any venue. Be sure to check the individual artist’s information on how they wish their music to be used and how you can get permission to use it.
- Yummy Sounds: A smaller music streaming service with a smaller library, Yummy Sounds is one of the few platforms to offer a page of suggestions for museum or exhibition music available through their service.
- Epidemic Sound Spaces: Epidemic Sound offers royalty-free music from a huge range of new and unknown artists, focused on content creators who want to sync up sound with their video or podcasts. However, the company also offers a service dedicated to physical spaces, which is a different type of music license.
- Soundtrack Your Brand: A branch of the massively popular Spotify service, Soundtrack Your Brand provides public performance licenses for the commercial use of music. You can get access to a wide range of trendy and famous artists and genres of music.
- Cloud Cover Music: Operating very much like Soundtrack Your Brand, Cloud Cover Music offers a similarly large music and sound effects library for a lower price. You can also upgrade your subscription to create your own messaging that will play between songs at specific times, which could be very useful for museums or galleries to alert their patrons to when the exhibit will close for the day.
Does Music Really Help You Concentrate? (August 2016). The Guardian.
The Benefits of Studying with Music. (August 2019). Florida National University.
The Role of Background Music in Visitors Experience of Art Exhibitions: Music, Memory and Art Appraisal (Abridged). (January 2020). Master in International Arts Management.
Guide to Background Music for Museums and Exhibitions. (September 2021). The Rooster.