Harnessing the Power of Music – Part 1

Music is powerful.

You can harness the power of music to drive sales at a grocery store, to set the pace in a busy restaurant, or even to clear loitering teens from the front of your store. The key is to use it right.

The Power of Music

Music can be entertaining or relaxing. But there’s so much more to it.

The parts of our brains that process music are also used to process memories and feelings. That’s why we tend to associate specific songs with specific memories, and also why music can impact our emotions so strongly.

Think about how music is used at sporting events. From the lyrical “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” to the thundering “We Will Rock You,” songs can hype up the crowd in a way that nothing else can. Different players have their entrance songs, various teams have their anthems, all of them carefully chosen to build up both nostalgia and energy in the stands. In other words, sports teams use music to create a mood.


Political parties also tap into the use of music. Even in antiquity, kings and queens were often accompanied by musical fanfare. So it only makes sense that the leaders of today use music to try to present themselves as potential “monarchs.” 

Campaign rallies are a great example. Like sports events, these rallies try to harness the power of music to set the tone and stir up emotions.

The best campaign songs are those that match the identity that the politician is trying to convey to voters. One prime example: In the 2020 election, Elizabeth Warren chose Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” as her campaign song. This song, which discussed the working class, resonated strongly with her supporters because Warren constantly emphasized her working-class roots and her desire to improve life for working-class Americans.


Music in Retail

But let’s get concrete. Can music actually drive sales?

In retail environments, it seems that the answer is yes. That’s why many stores play background music: to improve the atmosphere of the store, encouraging customers to linger and buy more, as well as to become repeat buyers.

In fact, one company that provides in-store music to various retail stores has offered a fascinating tool to the stores that use it: a digital jukebox. Signs inform customers that they can use their phones to vote for the background music that they want to hear as they walk through the store. Songs that are voted by the most customers get moved to the top of the store’s playlist. In an age where brick-and-mortar stores are trying desperately to make shopping more “experiential,” this is an added incentive for shoppers to find shopping in-store more engaging than simply ordering online.

Perhaps the most intriguing use of music in the retail sector is not to attract people, but to drive them away. Back as far as 1985, managers of several 7-Eleven stores in British Columbia saw teens loitering outside their stores. To get them to leave, they piped classical and easy-listening music into the parking lot. It worked! The teens, who viewed this music as horribly “uncool,” felt uncomfortable and left. Other North American 7-Eleven managers heard of the success of this practice and adopted it, and it soon caught on with other commercial businesses.

Choosing the Right Music

Just because background music is playing in a store doesn’t mean that it will have a positive impact on customers. Just like a DJ needs to pick the perfect songs to fit the crowd, you’ll need to choose your store’s playlist carefully to make sure that the type of music you’re playing doesn’t backfire. You’ll want to make sure to carefully select songs with the perfect tempo, volume, and genre for your store.


Research shows that music with a fast tempo drives people to move more quickly. In a busy fast food restaurant, where slow table turnover creates longer wait times, this might be helpful. But playing slower music encourages customers to buy more, and maybe even splurge on a dessert course 一 so restaurants that don’t have to worry about turnover will probably want to stick to songs with a slower beat.


Similarly, a 2011 study found that shoppers in a grocery store bought more when slower music was playing in the background, and that they bought even more when the music was in a minor key. Why would the key matter? Researchers hypothesized that it may be because this type of “sad-sounding” music subconsciously prompted shoppers to find a behavior that would increase their levels of dopamine, the happiness hormone. Buying things causes a surge in dopamine (think of “retail therapy”), which may have led to the increased sales. 


Studies have shown that playing louder music lowered sales, by prompting customers to leave the store more quickly. Strangely, those who shopped to louder music thought that they’d spent more time shopping than those who shopped to softer music. Perhaps even more surprisingly, subjects in these studies generally didn’t notice the background music at all. So playing soft music, as long as it’s audible, may keep your customers in your store longer, encouraging them to pick up a few extra items.


There’s no one “correct” genre when it comes to choosing the best music for the retail environment. The obvious first step is to hone in on the type of music that your customers will enjoy. A toy store should probably lean towards kid-friendly music. A law office specializing in trust management might opt for classic songs from the 1960’s. Similarly, ethnic restaurants can set the ambiance by choosing music that matches the background of their menu.

Beyond that, though, you want to think carefully about your brand identity, choosing the music that will best match the messages you’re already trying to send about your company. Want customers to equate your brand with high-end products and a life of leisure? Pipe some soft classical music into the background. Looking to convey a trendy, contemporary vibe? Choose music to match. In short, tailor the music to fit your brand identity.

Choice of genre can be even more nuanced than that. For example, in one fascinating study, researchers showed subjects pictures of products that fit into two categories: “utilitarian” (e.g., a toothbrush, a ballpoint pen) and “social identity” (e.g., a bottle of cologne, a pair of diamond earrings), and asked them to write down the top price they would pay for each item. Subjects who were played classical music before completing the exercise priced luxury products much higher than those who were played country music, or those who were played no music at all. The study showed that using ambient music that complements a product’s image can make customers more willing to spend on it.

In short, creating the right atmosphere in your retail store can influence customers more than even they realize. If you choose the right playlist, music can be an integral component in creating the right atmosphere.


This is part 1 in a two-part series about music and marketing. This post discusses how to use the power of music to drive sales in a retail environment. The following post will discuss how it can be used in other marketing applications, including online advertisements. See all the posts in this series here.