Image by Daniel Schludi

Putting the implicit/subconscious impact of music to work for brands and marketers




For the last year we have been collaborating on a major research project with the Music, Mind and Brain Group at Goldsmiths, London University. The project, supported by a £400,000 grant from Innovate UK, is designed to map the implicit, or subconscious, emotional impact of music. So, ahead of announcing the results, of this breakthrough study, we interviewed Professor Daniel Müllensiefen to hear his thoughts on the commercial application of the psychology of music.


What made you get into the psychology of music?

Like many people in my field, I have a natural love for music. In my youth I played classical guitar as well as guitar in rock bands and jazz bands. I decided to study music, and then science of music and then eventually music psychology. When I came to Goldsmiths, I had the opportunity to become the scientist in residence for an advertising agency called adam & eveDDB to advise on all matters of psychology but especially music psychology and the impact of sound on advertising.


Back then sound was seen as an afterthought in advert production, something that was done once all the visuals and special effects were finished. But there is now significant evidence about the impact of music that demonstrates that music doesn’t deserve this ‘Cinderella’ status in advertising.


In that role I spoke to clients and testing companies and met SoundOut. SoundOut has a very important role in providing the empirical evidence and data brands need to estimate the impact of music on their brand or a specific advertising campaign.


Why are you collaborating with SoundOut on the Innovate study?

After collaborating on a number of sonic branding projects, we decided to get government funding for a significant piece of work to understand the roots of the impact of music. This will enable me to prove my theories and enable SoundOut to develop tools to test the impact of music.


Tools of this type are very important because of the expectations brand managers have about testing. In theory, in academia you have all the time in the world to produce the rigorous scientific proof of a theory. But the commercial world expects results yesterday i.e., access to timely proof so decisions can be taken fast. This is one of SoundOut’s key strengths. The other reason why tools based on proven data are so important is because data is often ambiguous. Academics want to see where the data takes them, but brand managers want to get the answer they expect. So, it's really important to set their expectations about the testing methodology and what it can deliver.


The current Innovate project shows that SoundOut really understands the need to invest both time and money in research. It takes time to identify the optimal way to design a test to achieve rigorous scientific results that can be the foundation for testing tools. So, we’ve been working on this project for a year. I’m confident that the results of our study will change the basis on which brands look at their investment in music.


What's your view on the subconscious power of music and how brands can use this to their advantage?

The Innovate project has been designed to answer that question. We are hoping to uncover how much difference music or audio can make implicitly to a brand or advertising campaign. I'm mindful of a quote by David Ogilvy which goes something like this: “people don't do what they say, they don't say what they think, and they don’t think how they feel.” This has very important implications for the way you test marketing communications and music in particular. You can ask people directly with questionnaires or focus groups whether they think one piece of music is better than another for a campaign. But these artificial research situations are not how people encounter music in the real world in the context of brands. Put another way you run the risk of overthinking people’s reaction to music. In the real world, decisions are taken quickly and subconsciously.


So, for the Innovate project we needed to find a way to measure the implicit/subconscious impact of music without asking people about the impact of the music. We needed to observe people so we could see how they changed their behaviour when the music changed, without them being aware that our observations were all about the music. This has never been done before for this kind of audio evaluation. So, we had to design new tests of the implicit impact in two main areas: firstly, the emotional impact and secondly the impact on memory and recall. This meant we had to devise novel tests that would be more valid than traditional explicit tests.


How hard has it been to design the tests to prove the implicit reaction to music?

It has taken a lot of work. Designing implicit tests is much harder than designing explicit tests. We went through many iterations to identify the most effective approach. Then we recruited 50,000 people to provide benchmarks for these tests. We took time to recruit the people from SoundOut’s panel so that we could be sure it was a fully diverse sample.


The tests we used were inspired by research in film music. Films use music as a device to create a sense of what is coming next. The same visual can be interpreted differently according to the music that is applied. For example, a door opening into a dark corridor can be seen as scary with one type of music or the arrival of a long-lost daughter with another type of music.


So, we used this approach to design the tests around a series of short videos with ambiguous images and sound from a selection of more than 100 different audio assets. We asked people to look at these videos and rate the scene in the video based on what they see (not hear) and how they interpret that scene. That enabled us to observe how the rating of the video changed according to the music that was applied to the video. This enabled us to see how strongly a piece of music expresses a particular attribute.


This leads me to one of the great strengths of this research – the ability to compare consumers’ implicit reaction to music to their explicit reaction. Through a previous study, when SoundOut mapped the explicit emotional DNA of music, SoundOut has identified 14 attributes that most often represent the explicit reaction to music of over 200 attributes. By aggregating the results across all videos, we have been able to identify subsets of five or six videos where the visual content does not create any visual bias to the feedback – and therefore we can be sure that the video ratings represent a very sensitive test of the effects of the audio soundtrack. This has enabled us to identify which music is linked to each of the 14 attributes. It also means that SoundOut will be able to create short and efficient variants of the implicit tests that are tailored to the individual needs of a client and can deliver trusted results very quickly.


Our study also looks at the recall/recognition of the actual sonic logo i.e., is it memorable enough to be recognised.




How would you advise brands to harness the subconscious power of music?

I'd give two pieces of advice. Firstly, I recommend real effort is put into developing a music strategy for your brand. It shouldn’t be just about the visual or verbal components. Brands have so many touchpoints with consumers where music can have an important emotional impact and this needs to be taken into account.


Secondly, I’d recommend using objective testing of your audio assets rather than gut feel. For example, Millward Brown has been doing advertising pre-testing for several decades but never considered music pre-testing in the same rigorous and systematic way. SoundOut has the panel, the technology and the expertise to do that at least at the same level, if not better, than Milward Brown, Ipsos or Nielsen have done for visuals.


How much more is to be found out about the subconscious power of music?

That's what the team at Music, Mind and Brain looks at. The commercial applications of music are only a tiny fraction of the ways in which music can deliver benefits. For example, we're looking at music therapy and mood management. What we do know is that many effects of music are subconscious. People use music to get through their day and cope with their challenges. People choose music to change their mood. Music can be very effective in doing that. The great thing about music is it beneficial almost all the time - it doesn't have harmful side effects like many other things that change your mood!


What is a potential use case for music that could have a positive impact on people’s lives?

The Music Mind and Brain Masters course at Goldsmiths enables us to look at this in both breadth and depth. Every year we attract great talent new talent. We inspire them with ideas and encourage them to run pilot studies. And this combination is pushing back the boundaries of our understanding of the power of music and its positive impact on our lives.


Music therapy is a wonderful opportunity for improving lives. For example, it can help people rehabilitate after a stroke. It can give people the motivation to keep to their rehabilitation exercise routines. One of my colleagues is looking at the music therapy for depression and other mental health issues such as schizophrenia.


We already know that making music or learning to play music has a positive effect on the perceptual, motor, cognitive and emotional dimensions of human processing. As a result, I believe the core curriculum in schools should create the opportunity for people to make friends with music. I think this is particularly important at the primary school and early secondary school level when children can learn a new skill very quickly. The impact of doing so can be transformative to your learning mindset. It can show you that with a little effort and support you can learn many new skills.

The other thing about playing music is that it is fun. It is usually done in collaboration rather than in competition with other people. So, unlike some sports or games like chess which have an impact on two or three dimensions, music has a positive impact at all four levels.


That’s why I’m so passionate about our longitudinal study of the development of musical ability in schools. We started it in 2015 with one school in Reading. Now we have schools in Germany, Italy, Latvia and the UK. The study is looking at why some people become highly musical, and others don’t. Is it about intelligence, working memory, personality traits or something else?


What do you like about collaborating with SoundOut?

There are three main reasons. Firstly, they are honest and genuine, there is absolutely no BS! When you're collaborating, you can reason and argue for a particular course of action because there are no egos involved. This creates a very friendly working environment. Secondly, they are genuinely interested in the scientific results and where the data takes them. And then they use it to create tools that add value to their clients. Thirdly, they are very professional. Their panel is structured and rigorous. This is a vast difference to other panels that I've used because of the depth of checks they have built into their panel to ensure that there is no gaming of the feedback and there are no bots involved.


What do you think will be the significant takeaways from the Innovate research study?

I think there are three.

  • Firstly, we will have created a new set of implicit tests for the impact of music on brands and advertising which can be replicated many times over.

  • Secondly, we will identify the attributes where music has the biggest impact – for example is it peaceful or technical?

  • Thirdly, SoundOut will create a benchmark database of audio assets that they can compare any new audio assets to.

The really powerful advantage of this research is that we will be able to directly compare the data with the explicit tests that SoundOut has already carried out. I believe the results will be genuinely ground-breaking in helping SoundOut to create a protocol that will enable clients to decide whether implicit or explicit testing (or both) should be used for the particular audio application they are planning to use.


What is your favourite music track and why?

I love Frank Zappa and my all-time favourite of his is the Zombie Woof. It's groovy, funny and sophisticated - that's the musicologist in me talking. I also like the Paul Anka cover album Rock Swings. His version of the Bon Jovi track, It's my life, is definitely one of my favourites.


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