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The tills are alive with the sound of Muzak

I spent the Christmas of 1988-89 stacking shelves in a liquor store. It paid $2 per hour (a pittance even way back then), and the boss made me mop the floor before vacuuming it, which continues to annoy…

There’s loads of evidence that the type of music played affects shoppers' buying habits.

I spent the Christmas of 1988-89 stacking shelves in a liquor store. It paid $2 per hour (a pittance even way back then), and the boss made me mop the floor before vacuuming it, which continues to annoy me far more than it should.

I remember it so well though because the store played White Christmas 19 consecutive times on Christmas Eve. 19 consecutive anythings is usually a bad idea, and mixing too much Bing with my beer was the final straw. To this day I wonder if this explains why I now work as a music psychologist, running experiments that show how piped music affects customers.

Fast music enlivens people, of course, but the research shows that because of this, it also makes restaurant diners eat more quickly - great news if you’re the manager of a busy burger bar.

Slow music relaxes stressed commuters on the drive home, but because of this relaxing quality it also makes shoppers slow down, browse more, and so buy more.

Other times, piped music affects customers because it has connotations that make them think and act accordingly.

Playing customers accordion music is the sonic equivalent of showing them a picture of the Eiffel Tower, and makes them buy five times more French wine than German wine. Oompah bands, by contrast, make even German wine more palatable.

Playing the sound of a babbling brook in the background makes orange juice taste sweeter and fresher. Playing upmarket classical music in a cafe makes customers believe that the prices should be higher, and makes them spend more money as they try to behave in a manner consistent with the “upmarket” thoughts that the music activates in their minds. Playing classical music in a bank can make even bankers seem trustworthy.

If customers like the music they hear, they find it hard to keep away. Playing music in the stairwell makes people eschew the lift. Playing music that people like at a market stall brings in twice as many customers as does playing nothing at all.

And because listening to music that we like puts us in a good mood, it makes us more amenable to approaches by shop floor staff, and even makes us more likely to volunteer to help other people.

Customers also have clear expectations of the music they should hear in commercial premises. How would you feel if your local Indian restaurant started playing Strauss waltzes? Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal agrees with you that the music should fit the food: order a dish in his restaurant and you will also be served an iPod pre-loaded with music that complements the haute cuisine.

And it’s important that businesses don’t violate customers expectations of the music. Playing unfamiliar, inappropriate country music in a gym distracts people so much that they can’t even work out how long they worked out.

I could go on, but you get the point. This stuff really works. And it is really good value for money. The “right” music typically increases sales by between 10% and 20%, representing potential profits of millions, but costs only a fraction of that.

Pressure groups such as Britain’s Pipedown have anti-Muzak celebrity backers such as Stephen Fry and Joanna Lumley, who agree with comedian Lily Tomlin’s fear that the guy who invented piped music might be inventing something else.

They argue that using the high water marks of Western civilisation to flog baked beans is like using a photograph of your grandchildren to promote cocaine.

I disagree. Playing music in a supermarket devalues it no more than does painting the walls blue devalue Picasso’s blue period. Putting the staff in a nice uniform doesn’t make Vivienne Westwood’s 1970s punk fashion any less culturally significant.

Others ask whether it is ethical to use music to influence shoppers, apparently making them buy things they didn’t even realise they wanted.

In reality, music only affects shoppers when they are undecided or unwilling to think about what they are going to buy. You would never favour a Toyota over a Porsche just because the dealer played Japanese music.

And is playing music any more devious or subliminal than using other aspects of the store environment to persuade customers? It is not a coincidence that in-store staff dress nicely, that the walls are painted a certain colour, or that the milk is usually located at the back of the store, but we seem happy to accept these marketing tricks.

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20 Comments sorted by

  1. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    I recall working in an electronics store in London for Christmas circa 92/93. They had a CD of the British No. 1 Christmas singles that just played endlessly. One of the workers did actually snap. He was an older guy, perhaps an accountant or something who had obviously been made redundant late in life and forced to take a menial retail job to make ends meet or 'get him out of the house'. He was always a bit cranky with the younger staff and the great unwashed buying their discount TVs.
    One day…

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    1. Rex Gibbs


      In reply to Mat Hardy

      I drove to the city specifically to buy an expensive print in an art gallery/ high end home decrator items. When I arrived the gallery owner was not there and the person in attendance was playing very loud hip hop with plenty of Fuck Fuck Fuck. I asked him to turn it down so I could talk to my wife about the print I liked. I was told it was his music and he would play what he liked as loud as he liked I left with my $4,000 in my wallet. And by the way bought the print from the owner at the closing down sale for $500 three months later. He said people had suddenly just stopped buying. - who would figure.

  2. Aden Date

    Service Learning Coordinator at University of Western Australia

    While it does seem arbitrary to campaign against one trick in a salvo of techniques used by marketing companies to modify behaviour, music has an assumed purity that I think is sullied by all the things it becomes associated with. I remember walking in to an alternative clothing store when I was younger and hearing Rage Against the Machine over the speakers. I thought it was insulting, but it didn't seem to deter the shoppers, convinced that the rebellion RaTM sung about could be expressed with a designer hoodie.

    I'm no idealist. I don't think an isolationist approach makes sense, but no matter how many books Malcolm Gladwell writes, people struggle to understand the forces that guide them.

    Porcupine Tree wrote a great song on the topic - "The Sound of Musak." I'd love to see a store brave enough to put that on: shoppers bobbing to the tune, hearing but not listening.

    1. Dianna Arthur


      In reply to Aden Date


      Just what sort of music would you expect an alt-fashion store to play?

      The Osmonds?

  3. Steven Bird

    Associate Professor in Computer Science at University of Melbourne

    "Playing unfamiliar, inappropriate country music in a gym distracts people so much that they can’t even work out how long they worked out."

    I liked this because it confirmed a prejudice, however I don't see any support for it in the cited article by Ziv and Omer, which talks about fast vs slow music. What is the source please?

    1. Adrian North

      Head of School of Psychology and Speech Pathology at Curtin University

      In reply to Steven Bird

      Hi, Sorry about that. Have just tried the link on my computer and it seems to be pointing to the right place. However, clearly that isn't the case for you and so instead just google North, A. C., Hargreaves, D. J., and Heath, S. (1998). Musical tempo and time perception in a gymnasium. Psychology of Music, 26, 78-88.

      Hope this helps.

  4. Kim Darcy


    Picasso's blue period is already devalued. However, using The Rolling Stones "Sympathy For the Devil" to sell chocolate, should incite violent revolution. And whoever is advising my local IGA store to play Richard Mercer "The Love God" in their store from 5-8 every night is not helping IGA's bottom line. As someone who has worked in the general area of 'conning people to buy stuff', let me warn you that nothing ranks higher than going shopping on an empty stomach. We did a lot of research on this, and the rubbish people will buy from a supermarket when they are hungry is astonishing.

    1. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      for me, 'sympathy for the devil' will always be the soundtrack to a movie by jean luc godard. a-.v.

  5. Judith Olney


    A funny and interesting article, thanks.

    I do wonder if the choice of music played in some shops accounts for them closing down quickly after opening. I was clothes shopping with my daughter, she being a teenager at the time, and every shop she wanted to visit was playing loud dance music, of the particularly irritating kind that should only be heard in late night dance clubs. The shops were all noise and weird lighting, (maybe so you could not read the price tags).

    I refused to go in to…

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  6. George Harley

    Retired Dogsbody

    A senior citizen faced with a long drive decided to take a CD along with him. Unfortunately it turned out to be a talking book version of a Sherlock Holmes mystery.
    He put his inability to follow the plot down to his concentrating on driving and perhaps the aging process.
    On arrival, he discovers the CD player had been on shuffle mode.
    Off topic, sorry.

    1. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to George Harley

      great story, George Harley. told my partner - we're tickled pink. -a.v

  7. Sherwood Botsford

    logged in via Facebook

    Recently I had a couple of hours to kill waiting for my wife's schedule and mine to get in step. I was in Chapters Book store, and was browsing for Christmas presents.

    But over the sound system was an unending stream of Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, Jingle Bell Rock, Frosty the snowman.

    The store was not busy.

    I have a quirk: My brain, I think has only one word processor. Whether the words come by ear or by sight doesn't matter. But the ear channel has priority. I cannot read with…

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  8. Mick Shadwick


    I'm sometimes deterred from even entering a store, let alone purchasing from it, by the sound emanating from it. Often, the music choice and its volume is not designed to induce customers and their spending, but it's chosen by the store staff for their enjoyment alone.

  9. Peter Mcilwain

    Composer & Teacher

    There are some pretty flawed arguments presented in this article. First the author, in implying that muzak doesn't devalue culturally significant music uses the bizarre justification that playing this music is no different to using a colour from a famous painting on the walls of a shop. What! Thats not even remotely equivalent. Muzak does devalue the music in the same way that you wouldn't use religious icons to sell things. It doesn't show respect for this music or understanding of why it is significant…

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  10. Amanda Caldwell

    logged in via email

    Muzak annoys me so much that I always have my MP3 with me to wear in supermarkets and shops, or anywhere else. This doesn't stop my sister texting me though with the latest inappropriate or incongruous in-store programming that she has come across. So despite my best efforts, I can't avoid it.

  11. Lesley Parker

    logged in via Facebook

    Supre and Cotton On seem to be going wrong somewhere. The music is SO loud (let alone SO bad) that it doesn't just drive me (the one with the wallet) out of the shop but also my teenage daughter (the person they are supposedly trying to sell to).
    I vaguely recall hearing some theory about loud music being a way of stressing people so they make fast buying decisions in store - is that perhaps what they THINK they're doing?

  12. Stewart Riddle

    Lecturer in Literacies Education at University of Southern Queensland

    Thanks for an interesting and enjoyable article, Adrian. No doubt, the subtle manipulations of marketing folk through music is designed to get consumers to buy. Perhaps there is some credibility to claims that using "good" music to sell stuff devalues the music, but at the same time I would hate to do my shopping without music. In fact, I'm one of those people who often walks around the stores, earphones in, humming along to my own private soundtrack. I'm curious as to how that might affect my spending habits!

  13. alfred venison

    records manager (public sector)

    they have to pay the copyright owner's representative for a permit for a public performance.

    the reception of it is highly subjective, its efficacy from a business point of view is moot. anecdote here shows some people are repelled while others are attracted.

    do any of them have a business accounting mechanism to measure whether or not this expenditure works as mooted? or works better than more lurid coloured bunting in the windows? -a.v.

  14. Louise Bee

    logged in via Facebook

    An interesting article. I had already heard of the potential power of a tune that has just the right style to attract customers.

    I am convinced that my local Target store plays (on a continuous loop) a rendition of a screaming toddler, each time I enter the store.

    As soon as I hear that sound, I'm like a Meerkat, immediately darting my eyes and body around to face the exit, before putting everything that I'd planned to by back on the shelves and bolting!

    1. Louise Bee

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Louise Bee

      As soon as I hear that sound, I'm like a Meerkat, immediately darting my eyes and body around to face the exit, before putting everything that I'd planned to *by back on the shelves and bolting!

      *Should have been 'buy'.