Background music

For the 2001 album by Give Up the Ghost, see Background Music (album).

Background music refers to various styles of music or soundscapes primarily intended to be passively listened to. It is not meant to be the main focus of an audience, but rather to supplement that which is meant to be focused upon. Music that is played at a low volume and is not the main focus of an audience is also referred to as background music. Traditional examples of background music include music played at various social gatherings and music played in certain retail venues. It is also common to employ background music in various electronic media including film, television, and Internet videos such as video blogs.

Psychological study

The study of background music focuses on the impact of music with non-musical tasks, including changes in behavior in the presence of different types, settings, or styles of music.[1] In laboratory settings, music can affect performance on cognitive tasks (memory, attention, and comprehension), both positively and negatively. Used extensively as an advertising aid, music may also affect marketing strategies, ad comprehension, and consumer choices.

Effects on cognitive performance

Background music can influence learning,[2][3][4][5] working memory and recall,[6][7] performance while working on tests,[8][9] and attention in cognitive monitoring tasks.[10][11]

Tasks music improves

Participants who memorized foreign language words while listening to Baroque music recalled an average of 8.7% more words than those who did not listen to music. The effect of music was stronger for less common words, and there was no effect of music on recall a week later.[2]

The Mozart effect occurs when performance on cognitive tasks requiring spatial manipulations (such as a mental rotation task) improves after listening to fifteen minutes of Mozart.[5][12] In a typical mental rotation task, participants see two 3D shapes drawn on paper, and then decide if they are different views of the same shape or different shapes. This comparison often requires mental rotation of the object. The Mozart effect is inconsistent when tested with musicians and non-musicians. Only non-musicians showed any improvement when given the mental rotation task before and after listening to Mozart.[5] Musicians tend to process music using both brain hemispheres, whereas non-musicians use mostly their right hemisphere. Listening to Mozart increased arousal in the right hemisphere (active during mental rotation), and non-musicians may have performed better due to more right hemisphere activity.[5]

Digit detection tasks require participants to monitor a stream of letters for two randomly placed digits, and attentional blink (the inability to detect the second visual target) may occur after the first digit is detected.[10] When accompanied by task-irrelevant mental activity, performance can actually improve on attentionally-demanding visual search tasks. Detection rates of the second digit were significantly higher when accompanied by music.[10] This suggests that background music may facilitate increased arousal or increased positive affective state, leading to better attention. It is also possible that the music induces a more diffuse distribution of attention, so that participants can attend over a broader search that includes the second digit.[10]

A similar phenomenon, inattentional blindness, refers to the tendency to miss a novel stimulus when attending to other stimuli.[11] As a laboratory task, participants are instructed to attend to moving visual stimuli on a computer monitor while an “A” of a different color moves across the screen.[11] A simple auditory task required participants to listen for an occasional embedded tone amidst background music, and this attenuated the blindness to the “A." Participants were able to perform both tasks simultaneously at a higher rate than the visual monitoring alone, and engaged in fewer task-unrelated thoughts, suggesting that not all increases in task demand are equal. Music may fill a special role that leads to increased arousal without affecting concurrent task performance.[11]

Tasks music impairs

Though increased arousal from music listening may improve cognitive performance (possibly the process through which the Mozart effect occurs),[1] the irrelevant sound effect (or irrelevant speech effect)[4] can also occur. When two concurrent sources of information compete must be processed, the sources interfere with each other. In serial recall tasks participants must recall (in the correct order) lists of digits or words. Music with a high degree of acoustical variation tends to inhibit performance on serial recall tasks by drawing on cognitive resources.[4]

When performing digit span tasks in the presence of music, participants must recall a string of digits of increasing length. Those completing the tasks in silence performed significantly better than those listening to music (it did not matter if the music was liked or disliked).[4]

Mixed effects and moderating factors

In a verbal learning test that consisted of words and non-words, background music had no significant impact on test performance.[3] Participants studied with original excerpts in which tempo and consonance (in or out of tune) were manipulated, nondescript noise, and silence. While test performance did not differ across these conditions, stronger EEG readings were registered with consonant and fast music.[3] This suggests music may draw more cognitive resources, though increased cortical activation compensates to preserve task performance.[1]

Musical variations

The nature of the background music, either vocal or instrumental, and the perceived correctness of the music can change its effect on cognitive performance.

Working memory, and more specifically the phonological loop (memory process through which auditory information is rehearsed and stored for short-term recall), plays an integral role in processing digit span tasks.[6] In the presence of either vocal music or irrelevant speech, performance appears to suffer similarly with both, whereas listening to instrumental renderings of the same songs (or working in silence) tends to lead to better performance.[6]

The presence of lyrics differentially affects performance depending on the nature of the task. Performance on verbal tests (reading comprehension) tends to improve with silence versus either vocal or instrumental music. On the other hand, math test performance is higher with vocal music than with instrumental. Logic performance (understanding flow charts or diagrams) is higher with either vocal or instrumental versus silence.[9] If music leads to a more aroused state, it appears to only improve performance when the music does not directly interfere with the task (e.g., lyrics interfere with verbal processing).[9]

Expert musicians and non-musicians listened to either music played correctly, played with errors, or silence while performing a language-based task (evaluating grammar in given sentences).[8] Both musicians and non-musicians performed worse while listening to incorrectly played music versus silence, but only musicians performed significantly worse in the presence of incorrect music versus correct music. With a visuo-spatial search task (locating differences between nearly identical images filled with geometric patterns and color), neither group was affected by the music conditions.[8] Musicians were more attentive to the errors in the music, and their performance suffered more. Though music can be arousing and lead to higher cognitive performance, it can also be distracting.[8]


The Cortical Arousal Theory suggests that background music may differentially impact cognitive performance based on certain personality traits.[7] Both introverts and extraverts tend to perform higher on immediate recall (recalling ideas from a story just read), delayed recall, and Stroop tasks in silence versus popular lyrical music.[7] Introvert's performance suffered more than extravert's with highly arousing music, suggesting internal arousal through music can differentially affect cognitive performance.

Music provides a material rendering of self-identity; that is, it provides a material in and with which to identify identity. Music is a 'mirror' that allows one to 'see one's self' and serves as a repository of value or self-perception.[13]

Music in marketing

In both radio and television advertisements, music plays an integral role in content recall,[14][15][16] intentions to buy the product, and attitudes toward the advertisement and brand itself.[17][18][19] Music’s effect on marketing has been studied in radio ads,[16][18][19] TV ads,[14][15][17] and physical retail settings.[20][21]

One of the most important aspects of an advertisement’s music is the “musical fit," or the degree of congruity between cues in the ad and song content.[22] Advertisements and music can be congruous or incongruous for both lyrical and instrumental music. The timbre, tempo, lyrics, genre, mood, as well as any positive or negative associations elicited by certain music should ‘’fit’’ the nature of the advertisement and product.[22] For example, playing classical music in the background has been shown to increase the amount of money that people are willing to spend on a product, as it is associated with an "upmarket" image.[23]

Product involvement refers to the degree of personal relevance and perceived purchase risk regarding a given product, while advertising involvement refers to the amount of attention directed toward the advertisement and its content.[22] Both types can be more cognitively (content-focused) or affectively (emotion-focused) oriented, changing the way in which background music interacts with advertisement viewing or listening.


When viewing 30-second TV ads containing background classical music, recall was tested for brand name and message content.[14] Participants viewed an original commercial (for a fictional brand of soap) embedded in an episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos. The same commercial was paired with either familiar or unfamiliar classical music of a slow or fast tempo. Results revealed an inverted-U relationship between tempo and recall (faster tempo correlated with higher recall to a certain point, then recall began to suffer). This was only found when the ad contained familiar music, suggesting that familiarity mediates advertisement involvement.[14] This supports a resource-matching hypothesis: message processing is maximized when the cognitive resources demanded match those available. As music speed increases, information density in the ad increases. As long as cognitive resources are not exceeded, ad processing more equally matches an increased state of arousal through the music.[14]

In real radio commercials, data reveal a different relationship when the whole stimulus is auditory.[16] Though a better match (higher congruity) between musical timbre and ad message led to higher recall, both slow and fast background music reduced content recall, with slower music leading to significantly lower performance than fast music.[16]

Background music can act as a peripheral persuasion cue, evoking emotional responses and positive attitudes toward both the advertisement and the brand. These emotional responses can also interfere with recall.[15] Women were shown a TV commercial for a fictional brand of hair shampoo, and assigned either to a "cognitively involved" group (instructed to pay attention to the specifics of product quality and ratings), an "affectively involved" group (instructed to watch for the product’s unique personality).[15] Popular music played in the background and facilitated recall only in the affective involvement group; it had a distracting effect with cognitive involvement.[15] This suggests a differential effect of background music in commercials based on product involvement and types of processing.

Intentions and attitudes

Attention paid to the ad and brand, attitudes toward each, and purchase intentions were measured in response to fictional TV commercials that contained either culturally appropriate or inappropriate music.[17] Congruent product-music commercials (e.g., Asian music paired with Asian product) elicited significantly more favorable attitudes toward the product.[17]

Radio commercials, when paired with congruent music (rated in another experiment as fitting the product being advertised), show similar trends.[19] Interestingly, congruent music elicits more positive attitudes toward the advertisement and brand in "high-cognition" ads (e.g., focuses on Rolex specifications) than in "low-cognition" ads (e.g., focuses on feelings accompanying a Rolex).[19] The musical fit differentially affected ad impact based on the type of commercial.

When background music fits radio ad content, but varies on tempo, style, and rhythm, participants formed different impressions of the brand and its endorser. With a slow piano ballad, for example, participants perceived the endorser as more diligent and orderly than when he endorsed a product with rock music. Even given these different impressions, participants did not significantly change their general evaluation of the product.[18] In all conditions there was a high degree of musical fit, but perceptions of brand and endorser can change separate from views toward the ad.[18]

Retail Environment

In a survey of shoppers at a suburban mall, both hedonic (pleasure) and utilitarian evaluations of a given shopping experience differed based on an interaction between retail density and the tempo of music playing in the mall. Shoppers are attracted to scenery, smells, and sounds; the more pleasant the shopper feels the more they tend to spend. Past research by Morrin showed that pleasant scents can enhance cognition and cause people to better remember the details of products.[20] Retail density (number of shoppers) was determined by the time of day and day of the week, while slow and fast music were played. A shopping experience can influence browsing behaviors and evaluations were highest with slow music and high density or fast music and low density.[20] This random survey lends support to a "schema incongruity theory" stating that more elaborate information processing occurs under mildly incongruous conditions. The incongruity between density and music tempo seems to create that condition.[20]

When participants viewed videos of interactions between a sales clerk and a shopper, slow and soothing music led to more negative evaluations toward the store and salesperson, if the sales pitch was weaker.[21] The type of music affected cognitive processing (slow music allowed for greater resources to be used in evaluating the sales pitch). Thus participants viewed a weaker sales pitch more critically, except when faster music drew more resources.[21] Musical fit also applies to retail situations. Regardless of the type of music, however, it needs to at least match the store environment and product to garner positive reactions.[21]

People who tend to do unplanned shopping tend to spend more when hear background music, people who have plan to shop tend to spend less even when there is music playing.


Incidental music

Main article: Incidental music

Incidental music is music in a play, radio/TV program or some other form that is not primarily musical, adding atmosphere to the action. It can be dated back at least as far as Greek drama. A number of classical composers have written incidental music for various plays.

Furniture music

Main article: Furniture music

The term Furniture music was coined by Erik Satie in 1917. It fell into disuse when the composer died a few years later, and the genre was revived several decades later. Typical of Furniture music are short musical passages, with an indefinite number of repeats.

Elevator music

Main article: Elevator music

Elevator music is a more general term indicating music that is played in rooms where many people come together (that is, with no intention whatsoever to listen to music). There is a specific sound associated with elevator music, usually involving themes from "soft" popular music or "light" classical music being worked over by slow strings. This type of music was produced, for instance, by the Mantovani Orchestra, and conductors like Franck Pourcel and James Last, peaking in popularity around the 1970s.

Video game and blog music

Background music (often abbreviated "BGM") is the music in video games (sometimes written "VGM") and music in websites.

Internet delivered background music

In recent years the proliferation of Internet delivered background music by such companies as Trusonic has gained traction. This allows the retailer to instantly update music and messages which are deployed at the store level as opposed to using older compact disc and satellite technologies.

See also


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  2. 1 2 de Groot, Annette M. B. (1 September 2006). "Effects of Stimulus Characteristics and Background Music on Foreign Language Vocabulary Learning and Forgetting". Language Learning. 56 (3): 463–506. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9922.2006.00374.x.
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