Jeanette Bicknell

Jeanette Bicknell Ph.D.

Why Music Moves Us

Can the Right Music Make You Feel More Powerful?

A new study reveals how our minds respond to certain beats.

Posted Jan 05, 2015

The experimenters first tested 31 musical selections from a number of popular genres, to determine which might make listeners report feeling “powerful, dominant, and determined.” They then used the three highest-rated, and the three lowest-rated, selections in subsequent experiments. The first experiment was a word-completion test. Subjects who listened to the most “power inducing” selections generated significantly more power-related words than those who listened to the least power-inducing selections, indicating that they had “power” on their minds.

One cognitive consequence of power is a sense of “illusory control"—that is, people feel increased personal control over future events. To test the effect of power-inducing music on illusory control, subjects were given the chance to win a prize if they could guess the outcome of a die roll. Those who had listened to the power-inducing selections were more likely to chose to roll the die by themselves rather than allow the experimenter to do it. In another experiment, subjects who listened to the power-inducing music elected to go first in a debate nearly twice as often as those who had listened to the low-rated selections.

Which aspects of the power-inducing music might be responsible for these effects? The experimenters ruled out two possible answers. First, the words: Merely reading the lyrics did not generate the same cognitive or behavioral effects as listening to the music. The researchers also measured and controlled for positive emotions in the experiments. While much of the music made subjects feel better (at least momentarily), only the power-inducing music aroused the power-related cognitions and behavior.

They next considered the sonic qualities of the selections and found an intriguing result: When experiments manipulated the levels of bass in an instrumental piece, they found that subjects who listened to the heavy bass selections generated more power-based words in a word-completion test than those who listened to the same selections with lower bass levels.

I hope that the researchers (or others) will do more work in this area: How long do these effects last? Are cumulative effects possible if subjects listen to power-inducing music for a period every day over several days? At minimum, it would be great to see the experiments repeated with a wider range of musical selections—and with a population other than college-age students.

Could music be used to make vulnerable people feel empowered? And might this feeling of empowerment be linked to some good outcomes for them?

Reference

Hsu, Dennis Y., Li Huang, Loran F. Nordgren, Derek D. Rucker and Adam D. Galinsky (2015) “The Music of Power: Perceptual and Behavioral Consequences of Powerful Music,” Social, Psychological and Personality Science 6(1): 75-83.