Sounds Interesting

Can music (literally) move you?

You might have missed a great story that flared up once again on social media this week telling how school kids in Evanston, Illinois developed a highly unusual fund-raising technique. The school’s corridor loudspeakers blared out Justin Bieber’s ‘Baby’ on a loop until the students donated $1000 to a school charity. It took just three days to hit the target.

Justin Bieber - Baby.

This parallels well-reported instances where music has been used by various security agencies as an instrument of torture, by for example excessive or loud repetition of kids’ TV theme tunes; and other cases where people have been moved to violence by loud music played by someone else, such as a next-door neighbour.

The technique has been used to far more positive ends too. British police have played the theme tunes from TV cop shows in petrol stations to deter customers from trying to drive away without paying, and numerous subway systems around the world have played classical music over the station tannoys to move along delinquents.

Experimental work backs this up. In the mid-1990s I found that playing pop music could attract students to a welfare advice stall, but that playing some nasty music caused fewer people to visit than when I played no music at all. Other research shows that playing music in a stairwell can encourage people to avoid taking the elevator and get some exercise instead. In another piece of research I asked people to wait for me in a room while I supposedly went to fetch something. The trick to this experiment was that I never came back, but instead timed how long it took the other person to lose patience and walk out: playing background pop music led to people waiting longer than when no music was playing.

In other words, it isn’t that music in public places is itself intrinsically annoying or pleasing. Instead choice and control are the important factors. The examples above show that when people dislike the music and have no control over it then they get annoyed and then leave pretty quickly, but when they like it and control it then they tend to stick around.

There is also some nice anecdotal evidence to support this. The United Kingdom pressure group Pipedown aims to eradicate music from all public spaces because, in part, they feel it detracts from our freedom of choice. The fact that they count eminent musicians such as Julian Lloyd-Webber and Simon Rattle among their supporters shows that it clearly isn’t because they are against music in principle, but instead are against inappropriate uses of music that impose on the degree of control we have over our auditory environment.

And as increasing numbers of us spend our public life wearing earbuds attached to iPhones and the like, so the better able we are to create a private sonic bubble that protects us and gives us the kind of control we crave. I wonder if this explains why sales of smartphones have gone through the roof?