Sound Effects on Affect

United by Music

daylight-savings-timeEarly this morning – 2 am to be exact – most Americans “sprang forward” as daylight savings took effect. Unfortunately, I was caught off guard and tripped. Not realizing the time change had occurred, I almost missed my flight home to Boston. Ironically, after an intense week in Media Psychology bootcamp, otherwise known as New Student Orientation, I spent much of this weekend detached from all media. My phone sat in my bag, the TV remained off, and I hardly touched my laptop. Instead, I was enjoying some concentrated time with an old friend who lives in Los Angeles. We were so busy interacting with each other and roaming around the city that I wasn’t paying attention to any sort of live news sources. Thus, I missed the fact that the clocks were changing.

In a surprising stroke of luck, however, my flight ended up being delayed. I happily discovered this as I raced from the security gates over to Gate 77 at LAX and heard over the loudspeaker that my plane was still being “pre-boarded”. Hearing this word always makes me chuckle a little as I nostalgically remember George Carlin’s old stand-up acts in which he hilariously disparages this and similar nonsensical, euphemistic terms. It makes me wonder: when the CIA decides to waterboard a suspected terrorist, do they pre-waterboard him first?

Sorry for the terrible and tasteless joke. (For the record, I strongly condemn any and all torture.) Just consider it a tribute to Carlin as I am quite certain he would have happily incorporated such a joke into his routine! Come to think of it, George once had something to say about critical thinking and the media:

“They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests.”

~ George Carlin

Anyway, as I sat down at the gate to gather myself for a few minutes, I heard some invigorating yet pleasant piano music playing in the background. It was soothing and calming, considering that I had just been running through the concourse and panicking that I was going to miss my flight. The music allowed me to finally relax amidst all the chaos of the airport environment. My bliss was short-lived however. As I begin to pay closer attention to the song playing, it sounded oddly familiar; and suddenly, I knew why. I quickly became disturbed as I realized my relaxing music was nothing but a looping jingle from a series of frequently aired United Airline television commercials. I felt annoyed and manipulated. I realized immediately that the music was sophisticatedly being used by United to embed their brand into my brain. This subtle advertising technique was leading me to unconsciously associate their jingle and branding with my pleasant, “meditative” experience.

This sort of marketing phenomenon is not unique but rather quite prevalent in modern society. I bet most of you can think back to when you were children and vividly remember certain television commercials simply because of their catchy jingles. You may possibly even remember all the words. This is the incredible, persistent effect that music appears to have on our brains, in terms of association, affect, and long-term memory!

Getting In Tune with Background Music

Music is a powerful media tool. I found Dr. Isbouts’ lecture on the subject, during NSO, to be quite interesting. He demonstrated to us how one could show the exact same video but simply replace the soundtrack and elicit an entirely different emotional response from the viewers. We all watched a video clip in which a first-person camera is panning over ocean waves. The first time we watched it, a Beach Boys song was playing in the background. The second time we watched it, the “Jaws” theme was playing. As one might expect, our interpretation of the clip was dramatically different in each version. When Dr. Isbouts performed this experiment, I was immediately reminded of the re-cut movie trailers that various people have posted to YouTube in which the authors show movie excerpts and provide a soundtrack that make a horror flick appear to be a romantic comedy or vice versa. It’s pretty incredible to see first-hand how music can so easily pull our emotional strings and guide our interpretation of the visual images on screen.

Feel the Music

I was surprised to learn from Dr. Isbouts that very few media psychology students, if any, have focused their dissertation work or other research on the use of music in media and its powerful abilities to manipulate emotions.

  • Jennifer Copley (2008) wrote a short article called “The Psychology of Music” in which she surveys a number of studies that illustrate the significant effect, both positive and negative, on humans, animals, and plants. She suggests that inadequate sample sizes and a failure to control for confounding variables put some of these results into question but believes that these studies certainly justify further research.
  • LeDoux (2000) suggests that emotions may often be “unconscious processes that can, but do not necessarily, lead to conscious experiences.” 
  • Panksepp & Bernatzky (2002) discuss how emotional circuits are “widely distributed in the brain.” They also describe how auditory processing of music is widely distributed across many of the same areas of the brain and thus may be able to biologically influence emotions in a very direct manner.

Just putting this small sampling of research findings together, we can construct an intriguing theoretical framework of how music unconsciously and directly affects our emotions and behavior. Such a framework could be a fruitful source of future media psychology research.


  1. Copley, J. (2008, Februrary 25). The Psychology of Music. Retrieved from
  2. LeDoux, J. E. (2000). Emotion circuits in the brain. Annual review of neuroscience, 23(1), 155–184.
  3. Panksepp, J., & Bernatzky, G. (2002). Emotional sounds and the brain: the neuro-affective foundations of musical appreciation. Behavioural Processes, 60(2), 133–155.