Jeanette Bicknell

Jeanette Bicknell Ph.D.

Why Music Moves Us

Music and Moral Judgement

Can music promote unethical behavior?

Posted Dec 06, 2012

The view that music is linked to morality is surprisingly robust. Thinkers as different from each other as Confucius, Socrates, St. Augustine and al’Ghazzali have cautioned against the effects of music on the soul. Now researchers in Israel have found evidence that these moralists may have been on to something.

 There is already a body of research examining the effect of background music on persuasion, using advertisements. When listeners hear background music that they like or that makes them feel good, this tends to arouse good feelings about the product being advertised. But there is a drawback: the presence of background music also seems to distract listeners. They recall less of an ad’s content when it contains background music than when it does not.

 Three researchers from Tel-Aviv Yaffo Academic College set out to find whether the effect of background music would carry over if the product advertised was not neutral but morally compromised (Ziv, Hoftman & Geyer, 2012). Would music have a similar effect if the product advertised promoted unethical behavior? Could listeners be manipulated so that they were more ready to accept an ethically questionable message?

 In order to answer these questions, the researchers recorded a radio ad for a non-existent website that allowed users to alter documents, thereby qualifying them for a higher pension that they would rightfully be entitled to. Half of the participants in the experiment heard this ad with a cheery Mozart allegro in the background, and the other half heard only recorded voices. After listening to the ad, participants completed a short survey about it. Those who heard the version of the ad accompanied by music remembered less information about the ad than those who heard the voice-only version. They also evaluated the ad more positively than did those who heard the voice-only version.

 Now, the participants in this study were university undergraduates, and so pretty far from retirement age. The researchers wondered what would happen if they changed the experiment and created an ad that would be more relevant to students’ current lives. They recorded a second ad, this time for a website that purported to allow plagiarism of college essays. Again, one group of students heard a voice-only ad, and another group heard a version with James Brown’s “I got you (I feel good)” playing in the background. The researchers also wanted to find out something about the participants’ attitudes towards plagiarism, and so they asked them to complete a questionnaire about academic dishonesty. About half of the participants received the questionnaire before hearing the ad, and half heard it after.

 The results of the second experiment were consistent with those of the first. Participants who heard the ad with background music evaluated it more favorably and remembered less about it, than those who heard the voice-only version. As the researchers had suspected, completing the questionnaire about cheating before hearing the ad primed students to think about the moral aspects of the cheating service endorsed in the ad. Those who judged the ad most favorably heard the version with background music, and listened to the ad before completing the questionnaire. Those who judged it most harshly heard the voice-only version, and listened to it after completing the questionnaire.

 Finally, the researchers wondered whether the emotional valence of the music mattered. What would happen if the background music was sad rather than happy? They recorded two additional versions of the plagiarism ad, one with the cheery Mozart allegro in the background, and another with Albinoni’s somber Adagio in G minor in the background. Participants who heard the ad with the sad music mentioned cheating and punishment as disadvantages more often that those who heard ad with happy background music. Participants who heard the happy version of the ad were more likely to recommend the site to others than those who heard the sad version. Interestingly, both groups had about the same level of recall about the ad, indicating that both types of music were equally distracting. So the differences between the two groups of students who heard the different versions could not be explained by a difference in the cognitive effort required by the different musical backgrounds.

 Clearly these are very interesting results, and the questions addressed deserve further study. I would most like for the researchers to examine whether hearing music (background music or music that the listeners are asked to attend to) has any effect on moral action. Would people exposed to music in an experimental condition be more or less willing to agree to volunteer their time to help others? Would they be more or less willing to come to the aid of an experimenter who “accidentally” dropped a bunch of files? And if the results of further experiments turn out to be consistent, what is it about music and about listening to music that might cause these effects?


 Naomi Ziv, Moran Hoftman and Mor Geyer. Music and moral judgment: The effect of background music on the evaluation of ads promoting unethical behavior. Psychology of Music. Published online 4 July 2011.

DOI: 10.1177/0305735611406579

About the Author

Jeanette Bicknell

Jeanette Bicknell, Ph.D., is the coeditor of Song, Songs, and Singing and the author of Why Music Moves Us.

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