Music Changes Grab Attention

Many forms of marketing incorporate music – often, this is to create a mood or evoke memories of a particular time period. New research shows that changes in the music are what really gets the attention of the listener’s brain:

The research team showed that music engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions and updating the event in memory. Peak brain activity occurred during a short period of silence between musical movements when seemingly nothing was happening.

Beyond understanding the process of listening to music, their work has far-reaching implications for how human brains sort out events in general. Their findings will be published in the Aug. 2 issue of Neuron.

The researchers caught glimpses of the brain in action using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, which gives a dynamic image showing which parts of the brain are working during a given activity. The goal of the study was to look at how the brain sorts out events, but the research also revealed that musical techniques used by composers 200 years ago help the brain organize incoming information.

In a concert setting, for example, different individuals listen to a piece of music with wandering attention, but at the transition point between movements, their attention is arrested, said the papers senior author Vinod Menon, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and of neurosciences.

Im not sure if the baroque composers would have thought of it in this way, but certainly from a modern neuroscience perspective, our study shows that this is a moment when individual brains respond in a tightly synchronized manner, Menon said. [From press release: Music Moves Brain to Pay Attention, Stanford Study Finds .]

Is this significant from a neuromarketing standpoint? Perhaps. What seems to wake up the brain is when the expected progression of music doesn’t occur – that’s when the brain starts paying attention. If music is leading up to spoken or visible words in an advertisement, it might be good to position a transition in the music – perhaps a brief interruption, as when movements change, or even a change in beat or sound that’s a bit surprising – adjacent to a point in the message when attention is important. Alternatively, rather than fading down the music as a spoken message begins, perhaps an abrupt stop might be more of an attention getter.

One important finding of the study, which used subjects without musical training, was that the transition must be obvious to the subjects. A change from 4/4 time to 5/4 time might be obvious to a percussionist, but would be missed by non-musicians. An unexpected chord that didn’t match the previous harmony was also shown to activate the ventral regions of the brain as well.

I doubt if this is a huge effect overall for marketers, but anything that can tweak the awareness of a customer during an ad impression is worth considering and perhaps testing.


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— who has written 985 posts on Neuromarketing.

Roger Dooley writes and speaks about marketing, and in particular the use of neuroscience and behavioral research to make advertising, marketing, and products better. He is the primary author at Neuromarketing, and founder of Dooley Direct LLC, a marketing consultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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1 response to "Music Changes Grab Attention" — Your Turn


Jeremy 4. August 2007 at 8:29 pm

May a musicologist chime in here? Actually, the kind of metrical shift you suggest in your penultimate paragraph might be just the thing a non-musician would notice, even if s/he couldn’t describe or articulate the change. For example, one of the most striking aspects of the recent iTunes commercial featuring the Fratellis’s tune “Flathead” is that the whole song is in a rather relentless duple meter — everything is divided into two and four. But then when it hits the chorus, the meter unexpectedly (and, for pop music, quite uncharacteristically) changes to 7/8. In layman’s terms, this means if you’re dancing to it, or watching someone dance to it, the footfalls land in a different place — off the beat for a few seconds, then on, then off, then on. This is definitely perceptible to the non-musician, even if s/he can’t quite say what it is that makes the music so delightfull herky-jerky.

(Incidentall, when these sorts of studies are carried out by non-music-scholars, it is VERY difficult to control for variables in a way that would afford any hard conclusions about reactions to this or that particular harmonic or rhythmic perception.)


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