In a previous article we detailed how smart commercial spaces are employing curated music to bring comfort and ease to a pandemic-wary public. However, for many businesses, choosing music is based on the idea that it will boost sales. Is this theory true?  

Brief history of music and sales research

The short answer is ‘yes’, but read on for the critical details. 

In 1966, Patricia Cain Smith and Ross Curnow measured the impact of music volume on shopper behaviour. They found that louder music lead people to leave a commercial space significantly sooner compared to quieter music. Then came the classic 80s studies of Ronald Milliman, where slower tempo music was associated with calmer customer movement and higher returns in the cash register. This finding was replicated in food and drink sales within restaurants. 

So what kind of quiet, slow music works best? The common belief is that classical music is the winner, as it has been linked to better sales than pop, rock or easy listening. However, take care with this common wisdom, this is where the waters become murky; classical music can also be associated with the poorest sales in some contexts. How might choosing the wrong music harm your sales?

Addressing the problem with music in shops

Going back to the early enticing research outcomes, many commercial spaces sprang into action and took the easy route to apparent success. They piped in background music (often called ‘Muzak’, a term that has been a registered trademark since the 1930s), sat back and waited for the money to roll in. The problem was that in most cases it didn’t work.

In fact, the extreme reaction to this music was customer revolt. According to the LA Times, the musician Ted Nugent once offered to buy Muzak for $10 million for the sole purpose of shutting it down. A UK group called ‘Pipedown’ argued that music in public places constitutes "a form of noise pollution". 

As a music and wellbeing expert, my opinion is simple. I agree that most piped music ranges from unpleasant through to distressing and even painful, but this is not because music itself is bad for spaces or consumers. The enemy is careless music. Cheaper, low quality music produced on low grade sound systems. You wouldn’t do that in your home – so why would you like it anywhere else?

The proportion of careless music in our commercial world astounds me, especially since I have a child with a hearing disability. Companies spend millions on visual design but by comparison many of them invest pennies in auditory design. We can avert our eyes, whereas sound is a 360 degree sensory experience that we are unable to ignore. 

A number of brands respond to complaints by cutting music out completely.  That is an overreaction, it is cheaper to cut music than invest in making a space more pleasant and welcoming. It is undoubtedly a missed opportunity. Our previous article outlined 5 ways in which music can support and comfort us by providing enriched public spaces

Let’s finish with some facts about how music can have a positive impact on sales with the caveat in mind that these will only follow from well-chosen, thoughtful, curated music that respects consumer needs as well as brand image. 


The double boost of music on sales

1. Make us feel more positive

I call these the internal influencers. Music enriches our body and mind states, making it more likely we will reflect positively on our circumstances and environment. 

  1. Music absorbs time, replicating the psychologically desirable sense of flow. Nobody enjoys clock watching or boredom. 
  2. Music stabilises mood and alertness. Check out this impact in our article on the Musical Bubble effect.

2. Make the environment more positive

The external influencers. These modify the appearance of our space and our evaluations of the underlying agents, including the musician and the brand. 

  1. Music aestheticizes spaces, it beautifies our world by extension. 
  2. Great music becomes associated with a positive image, which helps build loyalty. This emotion-based concept goes from ‘I like being in their spaces, they make me feel good’ to ‘I want to spend my time and money there’.

Ultimately, whilst there are some basic truths in the music and sales relationship, getting it right for each individual space is about far more than simple metrics like speed, volume, or genre. Curated, personalised music that reflects brand identity and aspirations is a solid investment that will boost both consumer interaction and loyalty.