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Pulling At Your Brainstrings (The Science of Muzak, Part 2)

By Rob Mitchum | 4.30.07

If you want to do your own experiment on the use of music as a brainwashing tool, it’s as simple as owning a DVD player and a mute button. Put on the scariest movie in your collection, be it The Exorcist or Jaws or Deuce Bigalow, then skip ahead to the most frightening scene, the one that keeps you up at night feeling like an 8-year-old after watching the video for “Thriller.” Watch the scene through once – yup, still scary – then re-watch it with the sound off … suddenly, without “Tubular Bells” or John Williams’ left piano-hand, what was once skin-crawlingly creepy seems downright pedestrian. For a further experiment, cue up the theme from Benny Hill and watch the scene a third time; you’ll likely find that abject horror has turned into comical farce.

Obviously, filmmakers have been aware of this capability of music since The Jazz Singer introduced talkies, and the emotional tricks of film sound have been exploited to induce fear, discomfort, or amusement. According to David Owen’s excellent New Yorker piece on Muzak, it was a demonstration of this power that inspired Alvin Collis to shift the mission of Muzak away from the flimsy science of Stimulus Progression productivity enhancement towards a more ambitious goal, which he termed “audio architecture.” Simply put, audio architecture means using music in a variety of environments to shape a person’s experience with the surrounding world, applying the lessons learned from film soundtracks to venues like stores, restaurants, and hotel lobbies.

As a reworking of the Muzak brand, this move was kind of genius: not only did it expand their client pool to, like, every business in the world, it also gave the company a firmer footing in the world of science. Perhaps in the 50s people were easily convinced of the amazing ability of scientifically calibrated music to turn us all into more efficient workers, but today’s more skeptical consumers aren’t so easily hoodwinked. Furthermore, the EZ-listening instrumental pop covers that Muzak had purportedly determined were best able to promote productivity had become a joke and a relic, found only in the most outdated offices and malls. The new Muzak sought to take a principle virtually nobody would question – the ability of music to influence human emotion – and build it into an empire of background-music branding.

Music’s impact on emotion is more than just a widely-held assumption, it’s a phenomenon that has drawn a fair amount of scientific research, published in journals concerned with everything from neurobiology to consumer behavior. It’s actually such a powerful and versatile stimulus that some laboratories use music as the primary tool to study emotion; unlike visual stimuli like pictures and video or smell prompts, musical samples provoke strong and consistent responses in test subjects, can be used to induce both pleasant and unpleasant responses, and can be manipulated fairly easily along mood-altering parameters like tempo and mode.

When people are locked into big, scary MRI machines and fed music of various types through headphones, the usual assortment of brain structures light up: memory areas like the hippocampus and insula, auditory processing regions in the temporal lobes, and higher-order processing in the frontal cortex. More interesting are two structures deep with the brain that show activation to opposing types of music, a small almond-shaped structure called the amygdala for unpleasant music, and the ventral striatum for pleasant. This latter structure is often studied for its role in the response to a category we’ll call “Awesome Things,” such as food, rewarding drugs, and sex, suggesting that “pleasant” music (usually some from of classical, in these studies) is processed by the brain similarly to a bar of chocolate or a, ahem, romantic evening.

However, more research has been conducted on the dark side of music’s emotional influence, in particular its horror-movie ability to trigger the innate fight-or-flight response even in highly-evolved beings like graduate students. In the over-simplified modern phrenology of brain mapping, the amygdala is the “fear locus,” a structure that seems to be activated when people are confronted with fearful stimuli, like frightened facial expressions or disturbing images: levitating demon-children, giant sharks, Rob Schneider in a thong. The amygdala therefore seems to function as a sort of alarm in the brain, heightening an organism’s responses when it finds itself in a dangerous situation. Supporting this idea, animals with amygdala lesions fail to learn an association between a neutral stimulus and an electric shock, meaning you can repeatedly give them a tone warning ten seconds before you shock them, yet they’ll never learn to fear the “hey, dummy, you’re about to get shocked” tone.

The ability of scary music to trigger this alarm system seems evolutionarily counter-intuitive; after all, there’s no Bernard Herrmann score in nature. Yet the association seems legit, as studies of patients who have had their temporal lobes, including the amygdala, removed (as treatment for epilepsy) and a patient with highly selective amygdala damage both show a selective deficit in recognizing scary music as scary. Often, these patients confuse scary music with peaceful music – which must make watching Wes Craven movies pretty befuddling – yet have no problem correctly identifying happy or sad music. The discrete functional localization of this mental process, and its placement in a primal brain structure, makes it seem like recognizing threatening music is pretty darn important for survival. In fact, some researchers have speculated that the musical tricks used to generate movie tension (unexpected sounds, unusual chords, jarring changes in tempo or volume) may replicate certain natural sound patterns that indicate danger to animals.

But Muzak isn’t really interested in musically triggering people’s fight-or-flight response, though maybe they should be: how about a music-based security system that scares off criminals? (Psst, Muzak, call me.) Neither are Muzak’s researchers concerned with the emotional effects of music alone; they want to know how they can use background music to influence our perception of other stimuli, like miniskirts and sub sandwiches. Studies that combine music with other emotional prompts are few and far between, perhaps due to the difficulty in designing multi-factor studies. But one experiment, published by a Swiss lab in 2006, buttresses Muzak’s scientific footing, finding that playing happy/sad/fearful music while looking at pictures of happy/sad/afraid faces enhanced people’s ratings of the intended mood, as well as inducing stronger activation of brain areas like our friend the amygdala. Turns out, when trying to take stock of its emotional surroundings, the brain appreciates a multimedia presentation.

As is typical for a human research setting, the behavioral output of these studies is ridiculously simple, grade-school stuff: grading a facial expression on a 1-10 scale for different moods, or rating a musical snippet as “happy” or “scary.” To make the leap, as Muzak does, from this basic emotion research to the complex effects upon consumer behavior and choice is almost impossible, though the company’s super-awesome high-tech website is willing to try. Or maybe they’re not; according to the Audio Architecture section, Muzak is in the Colbert-style business of programming music that “bypasses the mind and targets the receptiveness of the heart” and “transforms music from something heard to something felt.”

New-agey PR-speak aside, to determine whether in-store music actually helps a business’ bottom line or not requires turning to the world of business research journals, where the articles look just like real science and read just like real science, but contain very little real science. At least that’s the conclusion I reached based on a sample size of two articles on music in retail settings. The first was a meta-analysis compiled from 32 separate studies, which utilized all that statistical power to come to the thrilling conclusion that people will stick around stores longer if the stores are playing music the customers like. The second study sought to examine the benefits of stores playing music that “fits” their brand vs. stores that have chosen a “misfit” (perhaps the Misfits) musical selection. Unfortunately, the researchers based their results primarily on consumer anecdotes, all of which supported the controversial hypothesis that it’s good for stores to play music appropriate to their brand. Disappointingly obvious results aside, the main lesson appears to be that people make judgments about a brand’s “personality” based on musical choice, much like people (not just snooty hipsters) make kneejerk appraisals of strangers based on their musical taste.

Of course, this conclusion fits squarely into the business model of Nü-Muzak, whose goal is to sonically craft retail personality on a client-by-client basis. But if I may contradict their literature for a moment and actually consider the brain as a locus of musical impact, there’s an entire field springing up called neuroeconomics that looks for neurobiological mechanisms of consumer behavior. Returning again to the coarse science of the MRI machine, certain brain areas have been identified in financial decision-making that coincide with those found in music’s emotional effects: the reward center of the striatum, the more complex processing of the frontal cortex, and the insula, another region double-implicated in emotion and addiction. It’s highly speculative to reason that areas activated by both music and behaviors associated with shopping imply potential for actual biological interaction, but there’s enough smoke here for Muzak to whip up a good old-fashioned pseudoscience fire.

But tellingly, they have not, preferring instead to appeal to modern savvy about the language of marketing -- branding, campaigns, the commodification of personality – rather than the fancifully colored, text-heavy sciencey graphs of old. It may be a further sign of science’s waning clout as an advertising tool, when pharmaceutical drug spots choose slow-motion nature shots over facts and figures and even scam products like Head-On and TrimSpa opt for user or celebrity testimonials. Perhaps the old-school Muzak should be remembered not as a synonym for neutered and bleached-out music, but rather, with its fancy charts and post-war scientific faith, as a symbol of bygone days when a foundation in scientific theory, however shaky, was a critical part of a forward-thinking company’s image. More thorough and less commercially-motivated research may someday prove certain elements of Muzak’s ambitious ideas about controlling behavior via music, but by that time, the company will apparently no longer care about the details.


Baumgartner T, Lutz K, Schmidt CF, Jancke L. 2006. The emotional power of music: how music enhances the feeling of affective pictures. Brain Research 1075:151-164.

Beverland, M, Lim EAC, Morrison M, Terziovski M. 2006. In-store music and consumer-brand relationships: relational transformation following experiences of (mis)fit. J Bus Res. 59(9): 982-9.

Dagher A. 2007. Shopping centers in the brain. Neuron 53(1):7-8

Garlin FV, Owen K. 2006. Setting the tone with the tune: a meta-analytic review of the effects of background music in retail settings. J Bus Res. 59(6): 755-64.

Gosselin N, Peretz I, Johnson E, Adolphs R. 2007. Amygdala damage impairs emotion recognition from music. Neuropsychologia 45:236-244.

Gosselin N, Peretz I, Noulhiane M, Hasboun D, Beckett C, Baulac M, Samson S. 2005. Impaired recognition of scary music following unilateral temporal lobe excision. Brain 128:628-640.

Koelsch S. 2005. Investigating emotion with music: neuroscientific approaches. Ann. NY Acad Sci1060:412-418.

Owen D. 2006. The soundtrack of your life: Muzak in the realm of retail theatre. The New Yorker.


Waterfalls of text are produced every day about music’s aesthetic properties, but rarely is this ancient form of human communication addressed on a scientific level. Stereolab’s purpose is to investigate the places where music and science intersect, profiling research into clinical applications of the art form, explaining what we’ve found about its effects upon mind and body, and talking to musicians with science backgrounds and vice versa. Please: no Thomas Dolby references.

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