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How music can influence our behaviour Essay

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Updated: Jan 14th, 2020


Music shapes the way people interact with another, how they define their identities and how they respond to their surroundings. DeNora (2004, 5) explains that “instead of using music to understand people, one should focus on how music constructs them”.

Indeed, music has the capacity to shape and affect behaviour owing to its effect on mood, feelings and emotions. This essay aims at showing how music affects people’s behaviour in everyday life. It will do so by drawing on various effects on mood arousal, induction of feeling and music signifying emotion.

Music redefines how people experience time

To understand how music redefines how people experience time consider the example of someone who is impatiently waiting for a lift door to open. If that person needs to hold on for five minutes for the elevator to come down, it is likely that he or she may feel impatient and quite eager to get to his or her destination.

Time may seem like it is standing still (possibly because of the person’s fast movements prior to reaching the elevator or because the person may assume that lifts are always supposed to be fast). However, if one’s favourite slow tune were to be introduced in the scenario, chances are that one would not even notice that the five minutes had elapsed so quickly.

In fact, one may even think of the elevator as an interruption to this grand time. Essentially, music alters one’s experience of time because it changes the body’s reaction; it does this by altering neural actions within the body (Husain et al., 2002, 152). If, students are in an aerobics class doing rigorous and fast exercises, they would require music that resonates with their prevailing experiences.

A fast tune would cause their bodies to respond in a similar manner and hence enhance the time spent in the gym. Correspondingly, the person who was standing at the elevator needed to slow down his or her pace as he or she was waiting for the elevator to come down.

Slow music caused the body to follow the same rhythm and thus changed his or her experience. De Nora (2004, 15) affirms that she uses the same tactic when waiting for her dial-up internet to work. She listens to the Habanera’s slow tunes (La commission de San Roque Habanera, Legran Orchestra by Jose Suarez) and thus enhances the experiences brought on through the same.

Boutcher and Trenske (1990) agree with De Nora’s sentiments on the effect of music on the experience of time De Nora (2004, 15) explains that time moves fast when doing passive activities while listening to music). The former two researchers analysed twenty 4 young females who were riding bikes while carrying physical workloads.

One phase of the experiment involved listening to one’s favourite songs while cycling (the favourite songs were mostly pop and rock music); another phase involved total removal of all background noises and interruptions through the use of goggles and ear plugs. The other phase entailed no music and no deprivation of the senses. It was found that the cyclists’ heart rates did not change in all three instances.

Therefore, no physical alterations had been made; all the effects related to their mental faculties. The ladies felt that cycling was much easier with the music. They seemed to be less exhausted in this situation than when they were in the control phase of the experiment. This can be explained by the effect that music has on feelings. It may also be understood through the mood arousal created by those tunes.

The researchers recorded participant’s mood prior to the introduction of music and after. Their mood ratings had increased by 5-10% after listening to their favourite songs. Music can influence behaviour through mood but it is critical to question how this occurs. Husain et al (2004, 153) might have the answer to this enquiry.

They affirm that people who listen to sad music tend to record decreases in heart rates and increases in skin conductance; whereas those who listen to happy music have greater respiration.

Emotional implications of music can therefore be understood physiologically. If music creates internal physiological conditions that correspond to the same conditions that occur when in certain moods, then this explains why the cyclists moods increased.

The stimulation offered through music provides an avenue for lifting mood (Husain et al. (2002, 154). This effect eventually causes listeners to carry out “seemingly boring tasks” without focusing on time (De Nora, 2004, 20).

Many people actually listen to music when travelling or washing because these are considered to be repetitive and uninspiring tasks. Music serves as that go-between that enhances one’s time experience. As such, it provides an entertainment value to the listener and also boosts that person’s frame of mind.

Music creates social order

Society is characterised by immense use of technology, so it is necessary for consumers to behave in a certain manner in order to derive the benefits of that invention. De Nora (2004) uses the example of passengers in an aeroplane. When people aboard an aircraft, they need to act appropriately so that the flight maybe uneventful. Their actions should be well coordinated and ought to be carried out at the right time.

Conformity and agreement are key features in causing these effects. Many airlines have mastered the secret behind creation of social order; it is music. In order to get people to trust them, airlines often play music that passengers are likely to respond to. Before departure, one is likely to hear very slow music that often comes from the predominant culture of the people in the plane.

However, just before departure, this slow aura is usually interrupted by loud brass tones that come before the pilot’s announcements. After the instructions, another set of brass tones will be aired, and the flight will take off. The contrast between the slow music played earlier on and the loud brass sounds often causes passengers to realise that it is time to get serious.

Most of them will listen attentively to the instructions and will conform to the said rules simply because of the musical cues used. As such, music becomes an element of social control that causes the masses to behave appropriately and in an orderly manner. One can see how authorities, businessmen and other stakeholders use this component of music in everyday life.

For example, when visiting shopping centres, some stores may play loud music in order to attract clients to their premises. Alternatively, others may do so in order to keep buyers on the go such that effective crowd control can be maintained. Music is such a powerful tool in enhancing social order because it affects people’s feelings. Once one can change how people feel then it is relatively easy to change how they behave.

In order to understand how music relates to feelings, then one must understand the meaning behind the term. Feelings may be regarded as another component of one’s unconscious, which denote the level of significance of something to the concerned person.

As a result, feelings carry out a psychological function that determines whether or not something needs to be rejected or accepted. Experiences gain value when the person decides to allocate a certain level of significance to it (Becker, 2004, 22). Feelings are different from emotions because they are definite. Emotions signify excessive reactions to situations like pain, anger and guilt.

People respond strongly to music because it represents certain components that they can relate to. When looking at the airplane situation, its administrators may have decided to choose American music because it induces certain patriotic feelings in the concerned parties. Those feelings therefore generate a desired effect and eventually lead to behaviour alteration.

In certain circumstances, music can cause people to engage in pro social behaviour by making them less aggressive or stressed. Thus music can manipulate mood and thus lead to desirable behaviour. North et al. (2002) affirmed these findings when they carried out a study on people’s helping behaviour in a gym. In the experiment, they subjected a certain group of gym attendants to aggressive and loud music.

The other set was exposed to ‘happy’ music. All sets had equal numbers of participants, i.e., 128 participants in the aggression- inducing side and the 128 in the happy-inducing category. After completion of the gym session, subjects were asked to distribute flyers which would assist an association of disabled athletes.

Only 23 people from the aggressive group were willing to participate in this charitable event while fifty people from the happy group did the same. The study showed that music tends to increase cooperation levels amongst individuals and this enhances pro social behaviour.

However, one must be selective about the nature of music one listens to. If this happens to be too aggressive, then chances are that it would cause the exact positive effect. When an employer wants to increase work cooperation, then he or she needs to consider playing ‘happy’ music to his employees.

Music increases work productivity

North and Hargreaves (1999) carried out research on the effect of music on work productivity. They focused on people who do relatively repetitive work. The banking industry is ideal for this situation, so the researchers decided to analyse how cheque-clearing employees would respond to music. All seventy two employees cleared 12.5% more cheques than they normally did when there was no music.

It should be noted that not just any kind of music can affect productivity positively. If the work is repetitive, then individuals need to listen to fast music. In the experiment, slow music led to 22.3% less cheques being cleared in the same department (North and Hargreaves, 1999, 40). Fast music has the ability to increase work productivity because of its relation to mood arousal.

It heightens arousal levels and thus causes staff to engage in greater activity. Music can be constructive or destructive depending on its effect on the mood. If the task at hand requires a certain mood, then music will only be constructive if it accelerates or causes workers to have that frame of mind.

However, when the opposite occurs, then work productivity is likely to be diminished. Generally speaking though, music maybe understood as a mechanism for enhancing job satisfaction. Workers who are in a better mood simply perform better than their counterparts who are not.

In order to understand exactly how work productivity increases as a result of music, it is essential to know the difference between mood and arousal. The term mood refers to long lasting emotions which have a direct effect on cognitive aspects of the mind such as reasoning and thinking. Conversely, arousal denotes the intensity of emotional responses, and this has a direct effect on actions performed by the subject.

Arousal can be described through terms such as vigour, wakefulness and activity while mood is described using words such as depressed, gloomy, and happy. Music has an effect on both arousal and mood; hence illustrating why people actually listen to music. If a person listens to music that sounds sad, then the person’s heart rate is likely to go down, his or her skin conductance will reduce and so will the blood pressure.

However, if a person listens to music that sounds frightening, then that person’s heart rate is likely to increase. The reverse is true for people who listen to music that sounds ‘happy’. Such people often tend to record lower heart rates than the frightening case. Frightening music therefore affects arousal and mood while sad and happy music only affect mood.

People who carry out tasks that require immense levels of cognition such as cheque clearance should be subjected to music that alters their arousal rather than their mood. However, if certain job positions require people to think and reason, then it would be best to play music that affects mood and reduces arousal. Their levels of cooperation, helpfulness as well as their creative input are likely to go up once this takes place.

All this takes place because arousal has an effect on cognition. The Mozart – effect (as many researchers call it) usually arises when subjects record better spatial abilities after listening to Mozart. The Mozart sonata is a happy sounding piece of music. It therefore has the ability to alter how people perform spatial tasks because of its effect on mood rather than arousal (Husain et. al, 2004).

Music and its influence on creativity

Music has the ability to influence one’s creative side because it focuses on the subjective rather than the objective. It usually deals with the inner emotional side rather than the events or the objects that lead to the emotion. When compared to other art forms, music has a greater impact or power over participants because emotions are used as the platform for interpreting a person’s feelings.

As one listens to a piece of music, one is likely to try and understand the piece. In this process, a relationship will be formed between the person and the music (Radano, 1989). Music can only make sense to an individual when that person had a certain level of expectation prior to listening to the piece. Therefore, a creative process is involved during the appreciation of music.

Studies indicate that students who listen to music and participate in other art forms tend to possess a higher creativity score (Martin, 1967, 314). The latter study entailed analysis of students who took part in musical arts class on the basis of their creative thinking.

Music can be linked to one’s past and one’s future. Subjects often associate a physical object with an abstract concept. As such, past and present events have the ability to influence a person’s future, and are indicative of what is to come. This is how creativity can be enhanced through the very act of listening, producing, understanding and appreciating music.

A painter or sculptor is likely to play some music in his or her studio background in order to maximise his or her creative potential. Alternatively, a writer may be going through writers block and may need to come up with new ideas for an article or book that he or she is working on. Music can stimulate these creative thoughts through the process mentioned above.

In fact, many professions that may not traditionally fall in the ‘creative’ category still require fresh injection of ideas. Advertisers, software developers and others may need to develop a new product or service and more often than not, music is the mechanism that causes these creative juices to flow from them.

It sometimes reminds them of an event that had occurred in the past and thus propels them to solve their current predicament, or it may inspire a different approach by diversion.

How music alters group interactions

Human beings have a tendency to perceive other people’s emotions. This can be seen during riots or periods of mass unrest. Music tends to alter people’s behaviour in a group because it has the capacity to connect individuals to each other (Becker, 2004, 58). Usually, this can be seen when people are in a sports game, carnival, music concert, party or a dance floor.

When people participate in these practices, then their roles are normally defined by the group. As young people gather together to listen to their favourite rock artist perform, their actions will often be more pronounced than an elderly group that maybe sitting together in a classical concert. Nonetheless, both categories are still affected by the group phenomenon.

All listeners must conform to crowd expectations by moving and altering their behaviour in order to suit perceptions of those people around them. Therefore, music becomes the means with which identify formation occurs in that particular group.

It now becomes quite personal because it has been internalised. In just the same way that people use clothes, tattoos and other things to define themselves, music is usually seen as a personal issue that can generate aggression if criticized by others.

Whenever a group exists, each member inside it must have a role. However, individuality cannot be permitted. The group ought to have shared norms where certain rules exist. Some members will be dominated while others will submit. Furthermore, the group literary defines what one is or is not in relation to others and to oneself.

One must accept the role ascribed by the group; otherwise one would not qualify to belong to it. In order to communicate group expectations, it is normally expected that the members will take part in a ritual. These rituals often cause people to get into a trance like state that will lead them to greater awareness.

In the case of music, the listener is a part of a group if a number of people are also listening to the same thing at the same place. In these circumstances, the music lover now becomes a component of the collective movement. If active listening takes place, then chances are that the listener would get absorbed into it and possibly cut out all other things going on in his or her surroundings.

Becker (2004) explains that when people listen deeply to music (when no distractions are permitted and one gets submerged in the tune or song), they tend to enter a trance just like someone that is under a state of hypnosis. The music listener then follows a particular script without questioning or thinking much about it. At this stage, the listener will have merged with others in the group.

Concert performances or other instances (where people gather together to listen to music) tend to change group interactions because of these same factors. One can therefore say that music has a deep impact on group behaviour and group identity owing to its ability to bring people together.

In other scenarios, music can be used to share emotion and empathy. When a person is mourning, he or she is likely to experience very sad emotions. These can be expressed through words or may also be transmitted through music.

People who attend a funeral may sing songs that are designed to convey those sad emotions. Through immersion and involvement in that music, friends can share the experiences and emotions of the grieving person.

Creativity may also be enhanced through the process of discharge. If one has accumulated too many thoughts and worries in one’s head, then these may act as a mental block to the inspired thinking process. At such times, one must adopt a mechanism that will allow one to dislodge those thoughts. Music causes one to eliminate these thoughts through its mood altering abilities.

When one selects a type of song or tune that matches one’s emotions, it is likely that the music will lead to the process of cleansing and purging. One’s mind may then be clear enough to come with new ideas as desired. Alternatively, music may divert one’s attention from unpleasant and negative thoughts and thus put one in the right frame of mind that is needed in order to be creative. In this sense, music will have changed behaviour.


Music alters people’s behaviour through a series of avenues. It changes people’s experiences of time and thus allows them to enjoy tasks or activities that would normally seem dull. All these come about owing to mood arousal. Society can benefit from greater social order if more of its citizens listen to music. They would be more cooperative and subjective because of its ability to resonate with their values.

Furthermore, music causes people to be more productive at work due to its effect on arousal. The same mechanism also explains why music increases creativity and idea generation.

This phenomenon influences adolescent peer group formation and identity formation since it creates a platform for identity creation as well as norm building in the group. These effects have been proven through adequate research and explain why authorities manipulate such aspects in order to get the behavioural results they want.


Becker, J. (2004). Deep listeners-music, emotion and trancing. Indianapolis: Indiana university press

Boutcher, S. & Trenske, M. (1990). The effects of sensory deprivation on perceived exertion and affect during exercise. Sport and Exercise Journal, 12, 167-176

DeNora, T. (2004). Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000

Husain, G., Schellenberg, G. & Thompson, W. (2002). Effects of musical tempo and mode on arousal, mood, and spatial abilities. Music perception journal, 20(2), 151-171

Martin, F. (1967). The Arts and the transfer of learning. The journal of aesthetics and art criticism, 25(3), 313-322

Meyer, L. (1956). Emotionandmeaninginmusic. Chicago: Chicago University press

North, A. & Hargreaves, D. (1999). Musicaltempo, productivityandmorale. Unpublished manuscript, 1-34

North, A., Tarrant, M. & Hargreaves, D. (2002). Music and helping behaviour in a gymnasium. Performing right society report, 1-56

Radano, R. (1989). Interpreting Muzak: Speculations on Musical Experience in Everyday Life. American Music, 7(4), 448-460.

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