Guide to Music and Consumer Behavior

Music plays a subtle and overt role in the daily lives of billions of people, influencing everything from their moods to their physical activities. Of special note is what music does to people’s shopping behavior.

What Does Music Do to Consumers?

The effect of background music on how people think and behave has long been the subject of scientific scrutiny. Recent research confirms past suggestions that music being played in the background shapes people’s impressions of how much time to spend in a store, what to buy, and how much to spend.

A study out of Curtin University and Macquarie University in Australia proposed that the effect is the result of specific songs or genres subliminally jumpstarting people’s memory, which in turn impacts their preferences and behavior.

An example of this might be if a store wants to sell off its beer and bratwurst products, it might pipe in German music through its public announce system. French music might subtly persuade customers to purchase French-made wine over wine from other countries.

The study cited the example of 120 college students who were split up and exposed to musical stylings from three different countries (India, the United States, and China) and given a menu with entrees representative of the cuisine from those countries. They were then asked to write down as many menu items as they could before hypothetically ordering one of those items.

Unsurprisingly, the music the students listened to affected both the menu items they remembered and ordered. Participants who listened to the Beach Boys, for example, were more likely to order typically American food. In general, people were more likely to select items to consume based on the corresponding music they had heard.

Classical Music & Social Identity

Another experiment dealt with how different genres of music can change what consumers think about the cash value of a product. For example, playing classical music has been found to guide customers into paying more for a given product than when other styles of music are played or when no music is played at all. This is a stereotypical “upmarket” association with classical music that makes consumers pay more for products that boost their “social identity.”

A 2009 study at the University of Cambridge found that classical music listeners liked to think of themselves as “intellectual,” and hearing classical music while out shopping might persuade them to pay more for items connected to class and sophistication, such as expensive cologne or gold jewelry.

Yet another study suggested that a style like country music might encourage participants to buy products that are more practical, like toothbrushes and ballpoint pens, than attractive. This was found when 180 college students were exposed to either classical, country, or no music when viewing slides that displayed alternately social identity and utilitarian products.

Students who heard country music were willing to pay more for basic products than the participants in the other groups. Similarly, those who heard classical music would pay more for products that increased their social identity than those who heard country music or silence.

The research was published in the Journal of Retailing, where the scientists observed that music that does not fit the product image can lead to customers not wanting to pay the maximum price for the given product.

Another study found that customers who were shown images depicting affluence and luxury — such as horse racing or yachts — while listening to classical music (known as “priming”) were again ready to pay more for products associated with social identity than customers who were not primed in this way.

A key finding is that participants who were under a time constraint to make pricing decisions exhibited this effect very strongly. After priming, students who were given only five seconds to make a decision were significantly more likely to pay more for the product than students who had a full minute to make up their minds. Researchers suggested a potential real-world application: Consumers are more susceptible to priming when they have more things to think about (what researchers called “mental overloading”).

It is a stretch to say that background music makes people buy things outside their typical shopping patterns, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that carefully selected music can help retailers push congruent products.

Targeting the Brain With Music

Music has long been known to have a strong impact on human emotions, and for marketers who want to understand and influence consumer behavior, this presents many possibilities. The right kind of ambiance, lighting, floor space, and music can determine a customer’s first impressions from the moment they step foot into a business space. This can influence how much time they spend in the store, what they choose to buy, how much money they will choose to spend, and the likelihood of their return.

There is actual science behind this. As The Guardian writes, research has found that store owners can create spaces that appeal to the pleasure centers of the customer’s brain (specifically to release “feel-good” hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin), and the arousal centers of the brain (for hormones like adrenaline and cortisol) make shoppers behave in different ways.

The Categories of Human Response to Music

In 2013, the Frontiers in Psychology journal published an article, “The Psychological Functions of Music Listening,” where researchers noted that the human response to music generally falls into four categories.

  1. Social: People think about how and where they fit into society, and how they can express themselves in that context.
  2. Emotion: The listener feels happy, sad, romantic, nostalgic, or another emotion.
  3. Cognitive: The listener feels engaged with the world around them, or they feel disconnected from the world.
  4. Arousal: This is music that excites the hearing senses and makes the user feel like taking action based on that arousal.

This is why different stores, in different industries, play music that varies by volume, tempo, and pitch. Sometimes, you want customers to be excited and active in your store; other times, you might want them to relax and take their time.

Knowing how music activates key neurological responses can be what brings people to your business and what keeps them there. Store owners should choose music that sends the right message to shoppers — ideally, making shoppers feel positive and confident about their presence in the shop, and about their desire to spend money to buy the goods and services on offer.

Tempo and Genre

Studies suggest that the most direct way that music can influence how people shop is through the pace and tempo of songs. In general terms, the tempo of a piece of music is simply the speed of the beat. Tempo is measured in beats per minute (BPM), so a song of 60 BPM is one beat every second.

When music is slower and played at a leisurely pace, shoppers tend to take more time to enjoy the atmosphere of the store and consider their purchases. This keeps them in the business for longer periods of time even if they’re not actively paying attention to the music.

In some cases, research has discovered that this leads to significantly more sales because stores that play fast-paced music encourage their respective customers to buy fewer things but to shop faster. This was noted by the Association for Consumer Research, which wrote in 1999 that loud music might be conducive for a business that wants to keep its front door constantly revolving, where people taking their time to enjoy the ambiance is contrary to the desired feel of the establishment.

Genre plays a massive role for marketers in deducing consumer behavior. As mentioned earlier, classical music makes patrons feel more sophisticated and intelligent, and they will purchase items or food in that vein. Country music leads to people feeling more utilitarian, and they will tailor their choices accordingly.

What genre of music to play in a store depends mainly on the types of services on offer as well as the desired clientele. A good understanding of your customers’ demographics (age, gender, geographic location, and political affiliations) will determine the kind of songs you should play to appeal to them. Ultimately, when people hear music they like, they are more likely to make more purchases and to think better of your store.

Sometimes, the right choice of genre also helps to deter unwanted clientele. Some convenience stores have started playing classical music to discourage loiterers and shoplifters from spending time in the area. The chairperson of the criminal justice department at Seattle University told the Seattle Times in 2009 that the practice (also seen in the United Kingdom and Canada) is part of an “environmental design” plan aimed at changing the nature of the setting, so that “people make other decisions than committing crimes.”

While classical music in one setting might encourage customers to think more highly of themselves and to spend money that confirms that impression, classical music in another setting is a way of removing unwanted business.

Volume & the Value of Time

As with most forms of expression, it is possible to have too much of a thing. Even if the choice of music is perfect, playing it too loud can be a turnoff for customers. Ideally, customers should not notice the music until the moment they “step outside their conversation,” in the words of The Pitch.

If the music is too loud, it feels like management is intruding on their personal space. High-volume music can unwittingly increase the body’s stress responses. If it’s too soft, it feels conspicuously silent. Music should help consumers think about their purchases; it should not blatantly direct them one way or another.

Music can even improve consumers’ moods. Time spent waiting in line or waiting to speak to someone at your business can be felt and remembered more positively if your customers have something agreeable to listen to.

When a person listens to music they like, it creates a perception that the time was well spent even if nothing productive happened at the time. The increase in the value of the time means that consumers won’t mind if they are mildly inconvenienced as long as they have music to keep them engaged.

Music in Restaurants

One area where all these factors come together is in restaurants. BuzzTime noted that everything, from the time of day to the type of music being played, impacts how consumers respond to the business they are in.

For example, when a restaurant has a lull during the middle of the day (after the lunch crowd, before the dinner crowd), it might behoove a restaurant to play slow tempo music to encourage what few patrons are there to stay longer. Playing fast music could make them finish their drinks and leave; slowing things down, on the other hand, entices them to pay up to 40 percent more on drink and dessert menu items, according to American Consumer Reports. BuzzTime suggests that a restaurant would duly benefit if it promotes drinks and desserts during the downtime, and it has music to fit the mood.

Similarly, guests want to feel satisfied at any time of day, and soft background music might be the way to go. A study out of Cornell University found that customers in a more relaxed setting – easy listening music, soft lighting – tend to report more satisfaction with their food, to the point where they ate less than a control group that had the same amount of food (bright lighting, no music).

On the other hand, peak business periods require a different strategy. To turn tables faster, it’s recommended that restaurants play faster music. When people hear more up-tempo music, they tend to believe they spent more time at their table than they really did.

This benefits the business because tables were successfully turned faster, and guests did not feel that they were rushed out. They honestly felt that their time was properly spent, all because of the effect the music had on their perception of the value of their time.

DJs in Restaurants

Having a DJ spin music at your restaurant can promote a fun, lively atmosphere. In fact, DJs at restaurants have gained popularity over the years.

Ultimately, the DJ you choose should complement the overall vibe and feel of your restaurant. A DJ who focuses on EDM likely won’t be suited to an upscale steakhouse, but they might be a great choice for a hip, fusion eatery. DJs have a variety of specialties, so you can find one that is a good fit for your restaurant.

Remember that people will be eating and conversing while the DJ plays, so it’s best to choose music that won’t overshadow their conversations. It might be wise to tell the DJ to avoid going too heavy on the bass.

You might opt to play a set playlist earlier in the evening, and have a DJ start spinning tracks later in the night. At this point, many of your diners will be winding down their meals but a good DJ might entice them to stay for a few more rounds of drinks. Good music can make the time seem to pass faster, and this can result in much more alcohol sales.

What Music Does to Taste

On the topic of desserts, sound can affect how people taste food, and this should be music to the ears of any marketer in the hospitality business. One study has found that songs with higher frequencies make people more aware of the sweetness of food. Music that features flutes, violins, and acoustic guitars might work with a dessert special.

Restaurants that play background music with a lower frequency (music with a strong bass presence) emphasize bitter flavors. A brewpub that serves craft beer would be popular in this regard because fans of the bitterness of IPAs and high-frequency music would not pair well.

Similarly, music that is too loud makes it harder for customers to perceive sweet and salty tastes. The Food Quality and Preference journal noted that this is why airplane passengers tend to order tomato juice because the intensity of flavor offsets the intrusive noise of the plane. At over 85 decibels, researchers in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance call this an “extreme noise condition.”

It can be confusing to know when to turn the volume up and when to keep it low. Whether in a restaurant or any kind of retail store, the trick is for a business owner to know what they want.

A general rule of thumb is that the volume of the music being played should match the energy of the crowd present. If patrons are standing up, moving around, and interacting with each other, the volume and type of the music should complement that activity. However, if people are sitting and you want to keep them sitting, softer, more contemplative music is the solution.

The Importance of Music in Consumer Behavior

Genre again plays an important role in what kind of music restaurants should play, and, again, this depends on the kind of restaurant.

Casual, family-friendly restaurants are often best served playing country music because 42 percent of Americans listen to that style, and as AdWeek notes, the base is growing. The strong emphasis on family and community in most country music is one of the drivers behind fans of the genre dining out more than fans of other styles of music, and they usually bring their families with them.

If a restaurant wants to cash in on its alcohol sales, the solution is easy: “Loud music can make you drink more, in less time,” according to Science Daily. The lead scientist of a study published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research is quoted in ScienceDaily as saying that high sound levels might cause higher arousal in patrons, which makes them drink faster and order more drinks. Additionally, the louder the music is, the harder it is to talk, which might further encourage consumers to drink more.

Whatever the industry, music is the ambrosia for business. The right choice of music, at the right time of day, can make consumers feel more inclined to make impulse purchases, spend a lot of money, take their time in your store, buy more alcohol, or move on to make way for the next wave of customers.

A marketer who knows how to maximize the power of music knows how to create the perfect environment for both the business and its customers to work very well together.

Music & Consumer Behavior FAQs

Will music make people stay in my business longer?

Yes, the right music (with the appropriate tempo and volume for your business) can entice customers to stay in your establishment longer.

Can music influence buying decisions?

Yes, music can affect how much customers spend on a purchase, how many items they buy, and how much time they spend in a store.

Does loud music make people buy more?

Generally, no. People tend to leave businesses faster when the music is very loud. They tend to linger more while they shop when the music is softer.

How does the tempo of music affect shoppers?

Shoppers tend to move through a store more quickly when the music is upbeat. They tend to shop more slowly when the music is slower.


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