The sound of music

comments 6
Myths / Psychology

Today I saw something I’ve never seen before: a man breaking out into dance in the supermarket. He wasn’t having a boogie to draw attention to himself. In fact, I got the impression he would have been embarrassed if he’d seen I’d noticed. I think he just couldn’t help himself. Michael Jackson’s The Way You Make Me Feel came on in the shop and he couldn’t resist the beat. One aisle over, I caught another shopper smiling and humming along. I don’t normally notice the music being played in shops, but I also felt more energised than I had moments earlier. Whether it be how long you spend in a shop, the amount you spend, even whether you buy French or German wine, music has power over our behaviour. And shops are using it to their advantage.

Even if you don't notice, the soundtrack playing in the supermarket could be having a profound effect on your purchases. Image credit: Caden Crawford via Flickr

Even if you don’t notice, the soundtrack playing in the supermarket could be having a profound effect on your purchases. Image credit: Caden Crawford via Flickr

Do you like your music fast or slow?

I’ve written before about the power of colour in influencing our behaviour and decisions. The colour green, even when only subtly included in packaging, leads us to perceive a product as healthy. This tendency isn’t altogether surprising given the way the colour green has been used to market health and environmentally-friendly products.

But the effect of music on our shopping decisions seems to be less predictable. Did the man enjoying vintage Michael Jackson spend more or less time shopping than he would have otherwise? Did he spend more or less money? Was he more inclined to make impulse purchases as a result of feeling upbeat?

The first thing to say is lots of studies have shown that we generally tend to stay longer in shops and spend more if music is playing.

We know that the more people like the music being played in a café, the more they tend to like the café itself, and the more likely they are to say they want to return to it.

And back in 1982, research showed fast music being played in a New York supermarket resulted in shoppers moving around more quickly, and spending less money than in the same supermarket when slower music was played.

Similarly, when slow music was played in a restaurant, diners stayed in the restaurant significantly longer and spent significantly more money on both food and drink than when faster music was played.

Loud or soft?

As early as 1966, research showed shoppers spent significantly less time in a supermarket when music was played loudly than when the same music was played softly.

Since then, a variety of studies have shown we are less likely to spend time in a shop that is playing loud music, especially if that music is unfamiliar to us, or is simply music we don’t like. Loud music also results in less impulse buying among people shopping with a specific purchase in mind.

An interesting exception is 18–25 year old women shopping for clothes. For these women, louder music resulted in more enjoyment and satisfaction, longer periods of time spent shopping and more spending.

Classical or Top 40?

As well as musical tempo and volume, of course there’s the choice of what sort of music to play. Researchers experimented with the effects of playing either classical or ‘Top-40’ music in a wine cellar. The results were clear: classical music led shoppers to choose more expensive bottles of wine. They didn’t buy more bottles of wine in total, but the ‘classier’ the music, the ‘classier’ the wine chosen!

The result was the same in a restaurant — diners spent more on starters, coffee and on a meal overall when classical music, rather than pop music was playing during their meal.

French or German?

Imagine going into a supermarket with the intention of buying wine. You don’t have any particular bottle in mind and peruse the shelves. You come across both German and French wine (labeled with the appropriate flag), matched for price and dryness/sweetness.

Even if you have no general preference for wine from either of these countries, what could make you significantly more likely to buy one or the other? You guessed it, music. When French accordion music was played, shoppers were much more likely to choose French wine. When German beer cellar music was on in the background, the German wines were far more likely to end up in people’s trolleys.

Interestingly, only 13% of wine shoppers answered yes to the question “Did the type of music playing influence your choice of wine?”

So next time you’re shopping, tune in for a moment on the music being played and think about how it makes you feel. Take control of your shopping behaviour rather than being manipulated by the sounds around you.

And if you feel like busting a few moves, I say why not?

Links and stuff

Radio on demand

This post accompanies a radio segment on Triple R’s Breakfasters program on Wednesday 17 June 2015.


  1. Interesting post, thanks! Did you find out why Aldi plays no music at all? I’ve always wondered – it actually makes me want to hurry up & get out of there. 🙂

    • Great question. I actually only thought about this for the very first time earlier today when I was at Aldi!! My non-observant self had never noticed Aldi’s lack of music before!! I don’t know, it definitely goes against the research. Maybe just another way they are trying to set themselves apart from the ‘standard’ supermarket experience.

  2. Great research. I don’t know if I spend more or shop longer if the music is good, but if it’s bad, I do know that I make a hasty and conscious retreat.
    PS. Caught that Ohrwurm again, from the moment I read ‘The way you make me feel’ 🙂

    • Oops. Sorry about the Ohrwurm!! And I reckon I’m the same as you. Oblivious unless the music is awful and then I can’t get out of there fast enough!!

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