The Psychology of Music: Why Music Plays a Big Role in What You Buy


The Psychology of Music: Why Music Plays a Big Role in What You Buy

Research suggests there seems to be three qualities of music that can influence buying behavior in a retail environment: tempo, volume and genre. The individual effects we will see in each of these can be explained by Mehrabian and Russell’s model of pleasure-arousal-dominance (PAD). At its most basic level, this model posits that an environment can alter an individual’s mood and therefore behavior by altering levels of pleasure, arousal and/or dominance through different channels. We will use this framework to explain how music impacts buying behavior in a store environment.

In 1982, Milliman et al. conducted a study in a New York City grocery store investigating the effect of music tempo on shoppers’ buying behaviors. The experimental design was simple but the results were insightful: playing slow music led to A) significantly more time spent in the store and B) a significant increase (32%) in gross product sales when compared to behavior when fast music was playing. As mentioned earlier, this effect can be explained by the PAD model: fast music leads to high levels of arousal which, in turn, leads to moving at a faster pace through the store. Conversely, slow tempoed music prevents these high levels of arousal and slows down the pace at which shoppers move, leading to an increase in items purchased.
The effects of tempo were also explored in a restaurant environment by Caldwell and Hilbert in 1999. Slow music caused customers to spend a significantly higher dollar amount on alcohol and spent more time eating while fast music led to a faster meal and shorter wait times for incoming patrons. As you can imagine, each of these effects might be wanted in different restaurant environments (ex: a 5-star restaurant versus a late-night diner) so the take home message is less about what is good or bad about fast or slow music and more about understanding the different kinds of behavior that can result from each.

Back in 1966, Smith and Curnow. conducted a field experiment that music loudness had a direct affect on the amount of time spent in stores. More specifically, loud music led to less total time spent shopping when compared to soft music. Despite this fact, the difference in number of sales was not statistically significant. Furthermore, there is some research suggesting that loud music can lead to a skewed perception of how much time has passed, but the effect is gender specific: loud music causes females to think less time has passed than actually has.

Another study by Yalch and Spangenberg (1988) revealed that age moderates the effects of volume, too: younger shoppers are more likely to spend more time shopping when music is being played in the foreground, whereas older shoppers are more likely to spend more time shopping when music is in the background. Whether this is actually an age effect or has more to do with generational culture norms is a hard distinction to tease apart, but the fact remains: using music volume to influence consumer behavior is not a ‘one size fits all’ tactic.



It’s probably a fair guess to say that the type of music playing is one of the first characteristics shoppers notice and indeed genre has an effect of shopping behavior. One study investigated the effect of playing Top-40 pop music versus classical music in a wine store. Ultimately, playing classical music led to more money being spent by shoppers. Interestingly, the shoppers did not buy more bottles of wine when this music was being played but rather chose the more expensive bottles. Other research has shown that, during the holiday season, shoppers buy more holiday-related goods when Christmas music is playing in the store. From these findings, it seems the type of music playing can send a signal about what kind of goods should be bought. Classical music indicates sophistication hence the more expensive wine, and Christmas music cues the holiday spirit which leads to more festive items being purchased.

Ultimately, none of these characteristics of music are isolated, and thus the purchasing behavior effects  are not stand-alone. It is important to learn about and understand many of the nuances of how music in a retail environment can affect buying behavior, but it is just as important to remember that nothing is black and white and what works in one store environment might cause different effects in another situation.

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