If you’ve ever seen Pretty Woman with the gorgeous Julia Roberts, you will remember that moment when Richard Gere takes her to the opera. She is so overcome with emotion listening to the opera that she cries and then, after a standing ovation, proceeds to tell the elderly lady “It was so good I almost peed my pants.” Quite.


In the words of Rihanna: please don’t stop the music” I actually started to read a book called ‘Music and Emotion: Theory and Research” by Patrik N.Juslin and John A.Sloboda (incidentally, has anyone else noticed that almost all authors of academic research have middle names? Kind of like murderers?)

Anyway! This isn’t my book though. In my blog about music the other day I spoke about my friends daughter ‘Carrie’ who was studying Music Thanatology and it’s a book she borrowed from the local library here in Cincinnati. I was lucky enough to have a severely delayed flight yesterday so I couldn’t get home, which is why I am sat here, in the morning heat in Cincinnati on a porch, reading this book and writing this blog. (With a cup of tea).

I began to take an interest in music and research only about a month ago, where I had been tweeting that I was looking to borrow a piano for the day to record some music and apply those pieces of music to Research Through Gaming’s online games for research – or ResearchGames™ as we call them.The reason was to see if respondents reaction times and indeed the responses themselves would differ if the music being played during the ResearchGame was uptempo and staccato or slow and relaxing. Incidentally, would respondents participate in one of our games if the music was really creepy, like in a horror movie? So…these thoughts have been swirling in my head and just as luck would have it, I came to Cincinnati to speak at the MRMW conference, met up with Carrie who just happens to be studying Music Thanatology and has this book I’m reading right now, which brings us up to speed to the here and now.

The more I think about it, and from the little I have read so far from this hunk of a book, the more it makes sense to use music with research. ANY research. Online, face-to-face, even the music played in the background of a call center during a CATI interview.

In chapter 1 of Music and Emotion, in the Introduction, we are told that “despite the ubiquity of emotional responses to music, it seems that, for a long time, such reactions have defied psychological explanation.” and that generally, there has been slow progress in the study of music and emotion. The authors then go on to write “…we believe, there has been a tendency for many researchers to think of the problem of music and emotion is so complex that they would prefer to avoid it altogether-rather than dealing with the problem inadequately, it is better not dealing with it at all. his view has, of course, not improved the state of affairs. As a result, there has been limited progress in the field”.

On reading this, I am immediately disheartened. How can I start speaking to the market research industry about the uses of music in research when the study of music and emotion is already seen as under-evolved by the very people who write about it? But then I flick to the front pages and see that this was published in 2001 with a 2002 reprint. So I’m hoping that further research has been carried out in the last 10-11 years.

At the MRMW conference here in Cincinnati, I heard time and time again that we need to approach respondents as human beings and by and large, human beings are irrational, emotional creatures. This I know already. After all, I am an emotional, (sometimes) irrational human being. And yet our methods of research seek JUST the opinion, and don’t massage the emotion out of people. When was the last time you sent out a survey and ask a respondent “So, how did you feel about that?”Indeed, when was the last time you sent out a survey and spoke to the respondent like a human being, from a human being?

Back to the book: I read on page 5 that there is such a thing called “classical concert culture” where “….audiences are taught to listen ‘silently and respectfully’ with minimum bodily movement or emotional expression (until the end). ‘Appreciation’ of music is often taken to mean having a higher intellectual understanding of the history and form of the musical composition, rather than an articulated emotional response. Even where emotions are valued, they tend to be those rarefied (transcendent or spiritual) forms that are related to ‘higher’ abstract and aesthetic properties of works, rather than the everyday full-blooded emotions.” To me, this is like the difference between a regular online survey, and a gamified one. One allows emotion, the other squashes it.

Insert here Julia Robert’s social faux-pas in Pretty Woman at the Opera. An opportunity was presented to her to be in a high emotional state, but was unable to express her emotion in the context of her surroundings. Do we do the same with research? Do we expect respondents to feel a high emotional state while not quite fully giving them the surroundings to do so comfortably? We strip the surroundings so that they are barren and bare (think white background surveys with radio buttons. Think bare and boring viewing facilities). We use an authoritative, robotic tone in the way we ask questions and encourage a way of thinking that isn’t human or emotional (think 10 point scales, think “How satisfied are you with the nutritional content in your cereal?” kinds of questions) and lastly, we discourage the use of open-ended questions and videos because it’s more expensive. So it seems we’re trying to get DATA, instead of an emotion-fueled response. Surely this isn’t what we want? We want the data to BE the emotion-fulled response.


As I read further in the book, I read that music can be seen as a ‘virtual persona’ and that music is the universal language of emotions’. This has sparred on some further thinking. We play this game all the time though don’t we?: “What song sums up your childhood? What songs would you take to a desert island? In the context of a couple – what’s our song? Translation: Which piece of music can become the virtual persona of our love?”

I listen to The Beatles ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and I feel nostalgic, and by and large, I feel quite sad. I listen to Rihanna and I want a cigarette. Why? Because when I used to go clubbing and listening to Rihanna, I’d be smoking a cigarette.

Therefore we move into a different vein now: Not just “How can music elicit different behaviour and responses?” but “how can music REMIND us of different behaviour and responses?” We heard from Andrew Jeavons (@andrewjeavons) at the #MRMW conference that human beings are pretty useless at recall, and yet our research methods rely completely on the respondents ability to recall accurately. So: can we use music to stir a feeling, an emotion, a memory?

For example: If we’re surveying a respondent about a recent shopping trip to Walmart, might it work quite well to play the same soundtracks during the survey that were played in the store at the time of their visit? If we’re speaking to respondents about the brands of shoes they wear, might it be interesting to ask them which song sums up their favourite pair of shoes?

In discussing music and research with a friend of mine, (let’s call him ‘Peter’) he said something that really hit home about music: “Other forms of art can be too abstract to satisfy our basic need to shout, scream, sing, whale, whatever. It’s (music) therapy for the soul AND it transcends universal feelings of loss, anger, rage – it brings people together like no other form of expression – and it never does in a way that alienates; If you’re a punk, there are other punks etc etc.”

This leads me to think that we can ask respondents to use music as part of demographic data. For example, there are many ‘personality’ tests out there which seek to group people into one section of society or another. We researchers like to label things. What if differing pieces of music could help us gain a better understanding of the lives/the backgrounds/the preferences of the respondents we’re speaking to?

As you can tell from the way this blog is written, this is all a new idea for me but there is no doubt that I will be experimenting with music and research in the VERY near future, especially in conjunction with Gamification, changes in language and our use of visible and hidden timers.

Watch this space peeps.