• Michael Spencer

Soundings: manipulation or management…savage breasts…sensitive souls

Manipulation or Management – Michael Spencer on the age-old question of how music affects behaviour. Savage Breasts – how local authorities enlist the aid of classical music in civilising public spaces (AP) …and Sensitive Souls…Hear Here! – a new alliance of music organisations is concerned about our lack of aural awareness (AP)


Manipulation or Management?

‘Be Heard’ is the tag line for the IABC and it couldn’t be more appropriate for the subject of my presentation at their conference (see news). It chimes in particularly with two initiatives announced in January, both based on premises about the power of sound. And of course, like any kind of power, it presents the possibility of beneficial use and oppressive abuse. People signing up to the Hear Here! programme will doubtless be keen on rediscovering or promoting the personal benefits of increased awareness when listening to music. Some of them no doubt will also be horrified at the notion of using the same music to manipulate behaviour in public spaces such as stations and shopping malls. Yet the motivation behind the initiatives described in Savage Breasts rests on exactly the same proposition being put forward on by Hear Here! The use of classical music and the impact it can have. Is there not a parallel argument being used by the pro-firearms lobby in the USA; it’s not the music itself that affects people, it’s the way we use it that matters.

How music is generally used, and how it can be used imaginatively and sensitively in many different settings is certainly part of the picture and is something woven into our methodology at Sound Strategies. And uses can include the influencing of behaviour, emotional reaction to products or spaces, as well as the personal and social use (self-management) inherent in concerts and leisure listening. But let’s not forget the essence of the music itself, classical or otherwise, and why it was created in the first place.

Michael Spencer Managing Director


Savage Breasts…

In 1697 William Congreve wrote: Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast, / To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak. / I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d, / And, as with living Souls, have been inform’d, / By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.

Three hundred years later, and UK public transport authorities are beginning to latch onto the soothing possibilities of music. Although the implication that passengers on London Transport’s Underground system or Tyne & Wear’s metro are savages at heart might not go down too well, the fact is that what people hear when they’re in transit can affect the way they behave, both in terms of dealing with stressful situations or the temptation to vandalism. Metro systems around the world have often discovered that playing baroque and classical music over their public address systems helps modulate anxieties and frustrations. Tyne & Wear Metro got the idea from Montreal. Elsewhere in the UK, p.a. systems have been playing muted classical strains in shopping malls, supermarkets, bus stations and other public spaces for some years now.

In fact, London Transport has come to the idea fairly late in the day. They conducted trials at five stations on the District Line in 2003 and recorded a 33% reduction in cases of verbal and physical abuse over the 18 month trial period. (They don’t say how many actual cases there were.) Reactions from a 700-strong survey of travellers were positive. Hearing classical music made them ‘feel happy, less stressed and relaxed’. Another reports: ‘I really like it when you play classical music at stations during peak hours. I step in, all engulfed in the hustle… and smile at hearing violins and flutes.’

So far, so positive. Sound Strategies is currently collating some of the burgeoning pile of research reports aiming to discover exactly why different kinds of music act on the personality in different ways. Often, it seems, despite external circumstances, cultural or age differences. Musical theorists in 18th century Germany were very keen on the idea that a piece of music should project a single mood or ‘affekt’. So perhaps it’s not surprising that baroque music seems to be ideal for creating a specific background, whether relaxed or animated. After all, it was really the first music specially to cater to leisure-time relaxation listening (albeit aristocratic leisure).

What is unusual about the metro music experiments is that the reasoning seems to be based on a negative effect of music, as much as on its positive effects. Apparently, by playing ‘uncool’ music, people hanging around with little to do but vandalise things are likely to move elsewhere as they don’t want to be associated with the classical sounds emanating from the p.a.

But the holy grail of exactly how music’s behaviour-changing mechanisms work is still elusive. And until then, the possibility of developing reliable and precise means of controlling public behaviour with music remains a distant prospect.

This is just as true of attempting to influence consumer attitudes and behaviour via audio branding as it is of ensuring vandalism-free railway stations or orderly exits from a football stadium. Certainly, just playing a few tunes over an unreliable p.a. system isn’t always going to be a magic bullet.

Here are just some of the factors to take into consideration:

  1. Music choice – tone, mood, style

  2. Music genre – narrow or broad

  3. Playback clarity – avoiding compensating for lack of clarity by turning up the volume

  4. Background noise – some commentators on the London Underground scheme made the point that street and train noise made classical music playback virtually inaudible

  5. Permanence – there’s no guarantee that the same music playback will continue to have the same effect after several months of use

  6. False associations – is it the music or something else (such as lyrics, artists, fashion, personal references) which makes the connection?

Andrew Peggie


…and Sensitive Souls…Hear Here!

The English language distinguishes between ‘hearing’ and ‘listening’, as does French and (to a lesser extent) German. I wonder if a new UK initiative, aptly titled ‘Hear Here!’ should have also the additional by-line ‘Listen up!’ given that it’s about how we perceive and interpret what we hear in addition to the physiology of hearing itself.

Hear Here! describes itself as: ‘the UK’s first classical music project dedicated to listening’. (Told you so!) And it brings together the UKRoyal Philharmonic Society and Classic FM radio, supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. It plans to run a year of virtual and actual listening events, all based around classical concerts from around the UK and broadcast by Classic FM. And underpinning this invitation to become more aurally aware, will be contributions from Education and Research Partners, including University College London’s Ear Institute, aiming to explain and interpret some of the complex sensory and perceptual interactions that take place when we listen to music.

There’s a back-story also. One that brings the project firmly into Sound Strategies territory: the noisy urban environment and what it might be doing to our ability to listen actively and sensitively. Not just to classical music of course, but to what others – and the world in general – are saying.

But why classical music? Probably the best reason is that classical music concerts offer one of the few remaining opportunities to listen to music unmediated by electronics although it will be interesting to see whether Hear Here! opens up this particular 20th century Pandora’s Box. In a phrase coined by one of the world’s greatest thinkers on listening, Murray Schafer, he described a sound separated in time and/or place from its source as ‘schizophonic’. And if we think about it, virtually everything we listen to nowadays, apart from conversations with friends, colleagues and family, is in fact schizophonic (and often mediated by electronics): telephones, radio, i-pod, CDs, video, DVDs, cinema, TV… We’re becoming a schizophonic civilisation.

Perhaps more controversially, Hear Here! will undoubtedly be touching on background music, advertising and the increasingly proactive use of music in many everyday environments such as shopping malls, hotels, stations and cark parks (see above).

In the meantime, visit the Hear Here! site and join them in rebalancing the senses over the coming year. You’ll find well-known classical pieces in focus, with the intention of coming to each piece from a different listening point of view, such as music and the surrounding environment, the mechanics of hearing, the impact of other senses on hearing, music and language, music an emotion, music and technology. Or take part in discussions, take a compelling little ‘spot the musical difference’ test, contribute to a listening habits survey, read a poem about hearing and look at photographs of ears…

What is Hear Here! telling the communications industry?

Possibly two somewhat conflicting messages. On the one hand, it signals a generally increasing awareness of the need to give the hearing sense its due in a world seemingly often dictated by image and text. On the other hand, it’s also saying that a lot of the incidental music we hear as background to our lives is distracting and irritating, and devalues the act of listening.

Obviously there has to be a balancing of the two. More sensitivity and imagination in how, where, why and when background music is used might alleviate the negative reactions and at the same time enhance the positive experiences. We have been invited to contribute some of our thoughts to the Hear Here! programme and applaud the initiative.

Andrew Peggie

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