Music Matters


For most of us music is an inescapable facet of everyday life. We all listen to it. In fact, on average, most of us spend around 18 hours each week actively doing so and many more hours passively consuming it in our living environment.

Extensive research has shown how important a role music can play in influencing our emotions, our mood and even our purchase decisions.

So how exactly does music affect us?

Music makes us feel better  

Certain types of music can stimulate the release of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine in the brain—which can make us feel happy and contented while regulating anxiety and stress. It also releases noradrenaline, which is a hormone that invokes feelings of euphoria

Rhythm and tone affect our emotions. More specifically, our hearts sync to the rhythms we listen to. Slow, reflective music, for instance, slows down our heartbeat and causes us to relax. Conversely, when we listen to fast-paced music it stimulates  more energetic neural activity, invoking feelings of excitement.

Similarly, if we are experiencing a stressful time, listening to angry-sounding music with an aggressive tone can actually help us release any internalised emotions. When we feel sad or contemplative, listening to soft, melancholic music can have a cathartic effect by helping to draw-out and express what we are feeling.

The power of suggestion

Humankind is remarkably good at recognising, and subconsciously responding to, information that follows recognisable patterns. We intuitively connect familiar motifs and sensual cues to make quick, instinctive judgements. Music provides some of the most powerful and evocative sensual cues of all and can trigger remarkably potent inferences based on unconsciously-learned associations.

Here are some examples:

  • The first few bars of a particular march from Mendlessohn’s opera ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ immediately evokes a wedding ceremony
  • A short extract of Leroy Anderson’s ‘Sleigh Ride’, or a few seconds of a seasonal favourite by Wizard or Slade, immediately suggests Christmas
  • The sound of bright (slightly distorted) musical chimes playing a traditional tune will, for many, immediately evoke an ice cream van (and Mr Whippy?)


When several sensual cues are in harmony they become mutually reinforcing and collectively point, with greater certainty, towards the same conclusion. Such sensory clues are deemed to be ‘congruent’ and as more such cues are gathered our subconscious mind tends to expect new information to follow the same pattern. If, for example, you invite someone out for a romantic dinner they will take-in the soft lighting, the candles on the table and perhaps the alluring scent you’re wearing; in the corner a harpist is gently playing ‘Claire de Lune’ by Debussy. These cues are all seamlessly congruent, each reinforcing and in harmony with the others.

Incongruence is caused when a new cue fails to fit the expected pattern. If for example, your romantic evening is suddenly interrupted by a heavy metal band tuning-up in the next room, the arrival of a loud party of diners on the next table, or by an unpleasant smell wafting in through the window, the spell is broken and the conscious mind kicks-in to challenge and correct the subconscious assumptions. Incongruity makes situations harder and slower to comprehend because it forces us to actively process information, which demands conscious effort, rather than accepting it subconsciously.

Music can reinforce fluent behavioural associations

Restaurateurs have long known that classical music can influence customers to choose more expensive food and wine and to savour it for longer; whereas up-beat pop or rock music can encourage people to eat more quickly and move-on.


Pic4bA recent US study found that music can be  even more  directive. Diners in the study were given a menu offering a choice between an Italian pasta dish and a Spanish paella dish. Traditional Italian music was played on the first night and traditional Spanish music was played on the second night. Although the Italian dish remained the preferred choice on both nights, the number choosing the Spanish paella doubled on the second night (from 17% to 34%). Of the 300 diners participating in the study only two had consciously noticed the effect that the music might have had in making their decision.

A similarly designed UK study observed the effect that background music had on customers choosing wine in a retail store. A shelf was arranged with French and German wine carefully matched for price and quality. Traditional French (accordion) music or traditional   German (Bierkeller band) music was played as customers chose their wine. On French music days 77% of the wine sold was French, while on German music days 73% was German. In other words, customers were three or four times more likely to choose wine that matched the music than wine that did not.

Once again, only 1 out of the 44 customers questioned at the checkout mentioned music having been a factor in their decision-making. Nine out of ten of those asked specifically whether the music had affected their choice said that it definitely had not.

The behavioural influence of the music in both cases was enormous, but customers neither noticed, nor even believed, that it had any effect on them


Congruity is more important than likability

Do you ever go into a restaurant, bar, hotel or retail store and wonder how or why the background music was chosen? In many cases it seems to have been randomly selected according to the taste of the manager, rather than for its fit with the environment.

Another study, this time conducted in Germany, has shown that, after being ‘at the right volume’, the most important consideration when judging the music for a particular environment (e.g. retail space, bar or restaurant) is its perceived aptness, or ‘congruity’ with the environmental experience. In fact this was found to be four times as important as having music that was ‘liked’ or ‘popular’ (even by the manager). In practical terms this is best illustrated by an expressed preference for traditional Indian music by diners in Indian restaurants across London—none of whom had such music on their smart phones, nor would any of them ever choose to listen to listen to it any other context.

Music and brands

A brand is the perception of a promise that lives in the minds of its audiences. The strength of these perceptions is a function of the number of ‘congruent’ clues that coalesce into a promise with clearly defined expectations. One of the most important sources for such clues is any music associated with the brand. The emotional response to such music shapes our perceptions of the brand and, when it is congruent with the brand values, serves to reinforce the brand promise. Over time the brand may even become synonymous with the music—take, for example, the ‘Flower Duet’ (from the opera Lakmé by Delibes) and British Airways, or ‘1,2,3,4’ by Feist which still evokes the launch of the Apple iPod Nano from 2007, while   the drum solo from ‘In the Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins is inextricably linked with Cadbury’s chocolate. Those with longer memories may still recall the image of a Peugeot 405 driving through burning cane fields when they hear ‘Take My Breath Away’ by Berlin, or the line “Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet” when they hear Bach’s ‘Air on a G String’ even though neither has been seen on TV or cinema screens for over 25—the music for each having been remembered for considerably longer than any other aspect of either brand.


How the right music can help build your brand

As we have seen, the right music can be used to provide additional clues about a brand, giving it a stronger and more enduring appeal without audiences even consciously realising. It deepens emotional connections and underpins core values by reinforcing the brand experience customers have instinctively come to know and trust.

If, however, we contradict or rupture what is currently assembled in their mind they may consciously reconsider their understanding of the brand and maybe even reject it.

Brands are like people…

Imagine, if you will, that your rather conservative grandmother hated jazz music.  She had never seen the point of it and frankly could not understand anyone who did. For as long as you can remember, she had always hated jazz music.

Then one day you find her listening to Jazz, nodding her head in pleasure and tapping her foot in rhythm… you ask her what she is doing and she looks up and replies:

“Hey, I’m just getting into the groove with my favourite music. You have to hear this trumpet solo, I’ve always loved this number…” 

You would have every right to feel confused. Perhaps a little annoyed—even cheated. The person who you thought you knew so well is behaving in a manner that defies your understanding, because it is incongruent with your expectations. Now substitute the figure of your mother with a brand with which you feel a particular empathy and with whose values particularly resonate with your own.

That is how it feels when a known and familiar brand behaves out of character, for example by being identified with the ‘wrong’ music!

Incongruity damages trust in brands, just as it does with people.

They capture your audience’s emotions

Neurologist, Donald Calne has observed that:
“The essential difference between reason and emotion is that
reason leads to conclusions, but emotion leads to actions” 

Rational arguments, therefore, may be a vital component in convincing your audience to make the right decision, but emotional responses are the essential component that enable them to believe that they have made the right decision. Music can play a vital role in generating the emotional appeal your brand needs by reinforcing its distinctiveness, creating empathy with its target audience and maintaining a consistent and familiar experience.

How to choose the right music?

There are many models, tools and approaches that we can use to determine the music that best fits the purpose and values of a particular brand. In the light of our recent research in this sector, and for the sake of discussion, we will look at three top-level themes most pertinent to a destination or service brand targeting international business audiences.

We will call these:

  1. Country music
  2. Tribal Music
  3. Mood music

1. Country Music 


For some brands ‘country of origin’ is a key component of their distinctive identity (e.g. Harrods, Volvo, Chanel, Fosters, Victorinox, Muji)






Questions to consider:

  • How important is the country of origin to the appeal of my brand?
  • How can I leverage the appeal of national music to add value to the identity of my brand?
  • What kind of national music is relevant? How and where can it be used to reinforce the appeal?

2. Tribal Music 

Pic7People naturally cluster into like-minded or culturally-aligned ‘tribes’. These may be defined by a shared lifestyle, religion, demographic or perhaps an expressed preference (for a football team… or musical hero or genre)

Music can become the cultural signifier of choice for some devotees of a particular artist, band or genre and it becomes an important part of their own identity (e.g. goths, rappers, etc.) or image (culture vultures, etc.)

This can be polarising, as music that strongly connects with one tribe can seem quite repellant to another…

Questions to consider:

  • To what extent do my audiences cluster into distinct music ‘tribes’ or genre types?
  • How can I leverage the appeal of particular music to add value to the identity of my brand?
  • How can I segment my audiences to provide each group with the music they will best respond to?

3. Mood Music 

Pic8Music has a powerful ability to set the scene in any situation and the right choice of mood music can be critical to setting the right tone.

The starting point is to define what mood is being sought.

Do we want people to be attentive or put at ease?

Stimulated or relaxed? Should they feel challenged, enthused and expressive or reflective, thoughtful and earnest?

One of the most powerful ways to get the mood right is to start by getting the music right!

Questions to consider:

  • How do I want my audience to feel emotionally?
  • What do I want audiences to remember about the character and implied ‘mood’ of my brand? 
  • How can I leverage the different effects that different kinds of music can have on my audiences and use this for different purposes at different moments?


  • Music is a widely appreciated and powerful means of communication which can strongly influence choice and preference.
  • Choosing music that fits is much more effective than choosing music we like.
  • The right music will build distinctiveness, relevance and consistency for our brand as well as reinforcing its instinctive, emotional appeal.
  • Music that empathises with national or regional identity can be particularly powerful for some brands. The culture of the audiences should also be carefully taken into account. Finally remember the mood and emotional ambiance that you are seeking to create.
  • From today make a point of listening to the music that surrounds you and question how it could be better… after all, music matters.

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