The power of music

It’s honesty time; it’s just you and the computer so come on and admit that there are times when you feel on top of the world and you just want to put on a certain song or songs and rock out to music and lyrics. In those moments of musical celebration you probably sing as if you are Beyonce and bust moves as if you are a reincarnated spirit of Michael Jackson. Putting aside your momentary delusions of musical adequacy, have you ever wondered what it is about those songs that makes you turn to them in moments of triumph or even what is it about some songs that can make you feel powerful? A new piece of research has unearthed the answer to the power of music to create power.

The first experiment conducted by these researchers involved people listening to 30 second clips of a range of pieces of music. The genres of music used included rock, pop, hip-hop, and reggae. The subjects were asked to rate how powerful the music made them feel and this allowed the researchers to pinpoint the songs most likely to instil feelings of power, those least likely to instil feelings of power, and then look at how those feelings of power were created.

The easy part was identifying the songs that worked and those that did not. The top two power-creating songs were Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and 2 Unlimited’s “Get Ready for This”. The two songs that scored lowest for creating feelings of power were Fatboy Slim’s “Because We Can” and the Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out”. We will come to what it is about these songs that did or did not create feelings of power in a moment. First though, let’s look at how they work psychologically.

The researchers found that the songs that create a sense of power do three things; they generated “thought abstraction” (a capacity to see the forest instead of the trees), they boosted “illusion control” (perceived control over social and external events), and they raised the desire to make the first move in competitive environments. All of these were tested after listening to the songs and the researchers also ruled out any other positive emotions to ensure they were focusing on feelings of power. All of these three qualities that were boosted are recognised components of the experience of psychological power.

Having established that some songs can raise feelings of power the researchers then analysed the songs to see what it is about them that has this effect. They found that it is not the lyrics because when people listened to the lyrics alone the same psychological changes did not occur. However, when they analysed the music they found that the songs with heavy bass levels were the ones generating sensations of power. So the researchers then conducted further experiments where they digitally varied bass levels in instrumental pieces of music and again they found that heavier bass levels were more likely to generate feelings of power and cause individuals to act in a powerful way on subsequent tasks. In this case there was no possibility that the subjects had associations with the songs from having heard them before so it was the bass levels that were having the effect.

This fits with previous research showing that bass sounds in voices and music are linked to social dominance.

It appears then that the sense of power really is a bass emotion.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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