You shook me all night long

As any Hollywood soundtrack composer knows, music can be used to manipulate people’s state of mind

Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ has graced David Lynch’s ‘The Elephant Man’ , Oliver Stone’s ‘Platoon’ and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s ‘Amélie’. In 2004, listeners to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme voted it the saddest classical piece ever written. A dance version by William Orbit (remixed by Ferry Corsten) was a top hit in 1999.

Soundtracks are vital to a film experience, tugging at the heartstrings, stirring the soul or scaring the living daylights out of us (think ‘Jaws’, ‘Psycho’, etc.). Film score composers are emulating classical composers, who used music to elicit an emotional response, from sombre requiems to Beethoven’s uplifting ‘Ode to Joy’.

Interestingly, even cognitive scientists exploit this phenomenon, using doom-laden works by Prokofiev to induce low mood in experimental subjects.

More generally, bland, relaxing music (‘elevator music’ or ‘muzak’) is used in public places as a calming influence (and to encourage customers to browse longer). In 2002, by contrast, loud classical music was introduced at Copenhagen’s main railway station to discourage drug dealers and sex workers.

In 1989, loud music was used during Operation Nifty Package, the US government’s attempt to capture General Noriega, a military dictator in Panama. Loud music was blasted at the Vatican diplomatic mission where he had taken refuge. Music has also been used on captives of US forces, for example at Guantánamo Bay and in Iraq.

Buy buy baby

Inevitably, business has also wised up to the power of music. ‘Audio architects’ develop soundtracks for shops that are as much part of the brand as their visual identity. Sports events have abandoned marching bands in favour of booming popular music.

Music affects how fast people drive and how they exercise in the gym. Music volume affects beer consumption. Style of music can even affect wine purchases: when German music was played in an off-licence, shoppers were more likely to choose German wines, while French music led them to prefer French tipples.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Psychology, History
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development