What’s your song? You know, the one that can always take a gloomy Sunday afternoon and make you smile. Can you get through Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me” without picking up a wooden spoon from the kitchen and singing your heart out? Or, if you’ve been in a Canadian pub at 1AM over the last 20 years, you understand the power that 10 words sung by Spirit of the West can have on our collective psyche.  Music and sound have the power to affect our mood, focus our attention and make us take action, which is why it’s vitally important when we’re curating an online experience.

She Blinded Me With Science

So how and why does music affect our emotions? Research suggests that several factors are at play and could explain why we have some of our most visceral reactions to music. Generally speaking, music makes us feel good.  It has been shown to be a benefit to our health and can even improve our creative thinking (Juslin, 2019). Amazingly, our bodies will attempt to sync our internal rhythms (like our heart rate) to match the tempo of the sounds we hear. Think of the calming tones of a lullaby to put a baby to sleep or your ability to dance to an up-tempo beat. As humans, we gain pleasure when we move together with sound. 

We also feed off of the emotions of those around us when we’re enjoying the pleasure of sound.  Think back to the pub at 1AM. All of your friends are on the dancefloor and your favorite song is playing at top volume.  It’s hard not to get caught up in the moment. You’re likely to feel happiness and create memories to last a lifetime. 

“Art is how we decorate space; Music is how we decorate time.”

― Jean Michel Basquiat

For effect, we can also play with the human pleasure response.  Our brains are preprogrammed to predict future outcomes based on past experiences. If a sound or noise is not what we expect, we’re taken by surprise. Imagine what it would be like if the final chord of a classical piece of music was not played.  We expect a certain conclusion and if we don’t receive it, we quickly focus our attention to solve the discrepancy. Want to create an emotional response? Just leave your audience hanging.

Even as infants, we all understand how our reflexes create rapid and automatic reactions to sudden, loud noises.  Those responses can be associated with shock, fear and surprise.  The outcome is not soon forgotten and the surprise can create a powerful emotion that can be a useful tool.

Video Killed The Radio Star

One of the limitations of an online experience is that it can only influence two of our five senses. Since we can only impact our audience’s sense of sight and sound, we need to maximize both to keep people engaged.

Maybe this is a situation you can relate to: It’s 10:30AM on a Friday and you’re an hour and a half into a leadership course that you were asked to join by your boss at the last minute. A great opportunity, no doubt.  Unfortunately, your work continues to pile up and your inbox is growing rapidly. You finally give into temptation and check your email in another window. Yup, you’ve checked out.

So how do we get you back? We use sound. It’s often the only way to recapture our audiences’ focus since they’re looking at something else. By using music and sound to play with the pleasure responses of our audience, we can create positive feelings, suspense or even create a trigger for them to tune back in by using audio transitions. 

It’s All About the Benjamins

When it comes to selling products, using sound to influence our decisions isn’t new. It is widely accepted that restaurants who want to turn over their tables more quickly will play louder, faster music. Remember how our bodies want to move with the music? If you want to get really specific in some cases using classical music (vs. pop or no music at all) has been shown to increase total patron spending (North, 2003). It’s important to remember though, that the most important thing is to select music that matches the context of where it is played. For example, playing classical music at a grungy, hip restaurant doesn’t make much sense.

Whether companies are sharing content or selling products online it can also be difficult for brands to have a strong identity. To counter this problem, an Australian consumer survey found that music and sound, especially if used in major keys, at the right tempo with the correct instrumentation, can create positive experiences, lead to strong emotional reactions and make a product stand out (PHMG, 2018). Now that’s taking care of business!

Closing Time

The reality is that online engagement will waver, especially in the work-from-home, COVID-19 era. As we adapt our ways of working and meeting, we need to anticipate lower levels of attention from our virtual audiences.  Using music, we can redouble our efforts to keep viewers engaged, especially if we understand how our bodies react to sound. That extra effort will help keep their focus on-task, and on-brand.