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The science of soundtracking your life, work, and UX research

The beat goes on… and your brain loves it

Have you ever thought about how music can transform your user research sessions?

Imagine creating a super chill environment that makes people feel at ease. It’s not about turning your sessions into a dance-off but about using music to make things more enjoyable.

Imagine jazzing up those user research sessions with a soundtrack that makes everyone feel like they’re sipping coffee in a cozy café, not stuck in a stuffy office. Who said you couldn’t mix a bit of Beethoven with business?

But first, let me explain why it’s worth your while.

What’s the deal with music?

Let’s start by understanding what music is. It seems like a philosophical question, that’s why we can check some opinions:

  • In “The Singing Neanderthals,” the author explains how our ancestors’ vocalizations were the basis for music and language, showing how music has played an important role in human evolution and social connections.
  • Steven Pinker called music “auditory cheesecake.” While that sounds delicious, we’re not just here for the dessert. Music is like that friend who knows exactly when to pep you up or calm you down.
  • Luigi Russolo and John Cage have pushed the limits of what we think of as music by finding rhythm in noise and meaning in silence. A unique avant-garde composition by John Cage, ‘4.33’ consists solely of silence. Russolo’s book “The Art of Noises” was a crucial work in the evolution of electronic music, focusing on synthesized sound.

Let’s assume that musical sound differs from non-musical in four parameters – height, timbre, volume, and duration. It turns out our brains play a guessing game with melodies, craving those dopamine hits when we guess the following note right. It’s the brain’s version of “Simon Says,” but with tunes.

When we listen to music, our brains get excited about what’s coming next. It’s like a little game of guessing what’s going to happen, and when we get it right, we feel good. This feeling is thanks to a chemical in our brains called dopamine. If the music is too predictable, it can be boring, and if it’s too complicated, it can be hard to guess what comes next. The best music is somewhere in the middle, where we can enjoy it and be surprised.

Music for productivity

Thomas Edison was probably the first to say, “Hey, let’s make work less boring with some beats!”. He recognized music’s potential to ignite creativity and problem-solving among his engineers. By playing phonograph records, he observed a notable uplift in their innovative capabilities. This historical anecdote underscores a timeless truth: music is more than a backdrop to our daily grind; it catalyzes creativity and productivity.

In 1910, a typing instructor played up-tempo music recordings in an effort to improve student typing speeds. In the 1940s, Muzak’s Stimulus Progression took this idea to new heights with instrumental sequences designed to invigorate workers’ energy and focus.

“Muzak fills the deadly silences.”

Fast forward to today, and the principle remains unchanged. Whether it’s a startup’s open space or a remote team’s virtual office, carefully curated playlists can enhance concentration, foster a positive work environment, and stimulate the flow of creative ideas. Music has an unparalleled ability to influence mood and mental state, making ordinary tasks opportunities for innovation.

Music as social glue

Music is awesome because it helps us get the same vibe and is essential for team-building activities. When we all clap, dance, and sing together, we create a sense of togetherness that makes us want to help each other. Such collective behavior contributes to the development of mutual assistance, cooperation, and social community, as well as decreased conflicts. It is no coincidence that all common ritual activities – from football matches to weddings and funerals – begin with music. The best part is that music can make us feel connected to each other without even saying a word.

Music is a powerful social glue, fostering connections between people. It can activate the brain’s mirror neuron system, which is involved in empathy and understanding others’ emotions, suggesting a shared experience when listening to music together.

Marketing magic: IKEA whispers and wine tunes

Have you ever noticed how you shop differently when there’s music in the air? Slow jams in a store might have you lingering longer, dreaming of that fancy perfume you don’t need.

What are your thoughts on adding whispered mentions of IKEA products that could aid parents in getting a better night’s sleep into a Spotify playlist for infants? IKEA crafted these ads that won’t wake the baby and tell parents about new products — now, if that’s not genius, what is? Music’s the behind-the-scenes maestro of marketing.

Faster music resulted in faster eating, while slower music led to longer meals and more alcohol purchased.

Studies reveal that the tempo and genre of in-store music can significantly influence shopping behavior. Slow, luxurious classical pieces can elevate the perceived value of products, encouraging shoppers to splurge on high-end items. At the same time, the down-to-earth vibes of country music might nudge them towards more practical purchases. The right background music can turn browsing into buying.

Medically speaking: beats over pills

From Alzheimer’s to anxiety, music’s doing more than just setting the mood—it’s healing. Imagine a world where playlists are prescriptions and doctors are DJs — feeling anxious? There’s a track for that. Need a memory boost? Press play on that nostalgic tune.

Music is known to have therapeutic benefits for patients with different neurological disorders. For instance, people with Alzheimer’s can benefit from music as it helps evoke involuntary autobiographical memories. It also helps in accessing those areas of memory that were thought to be lost. 

Similarly, patients with Parkinson’s disease can use music to move without trembling. They can create their own personalized music collection on their smartphones to have access to the right music at hand.

In 2009, a group of scientists led by Roy proved that pleasant music can muffle pain. Consonantal music is pleasant as its tones have several common overtones. In contrast, dissonant music is unpleasant as it has fewer matching overtones, which can cause discomfort. Therefore, it’s important to be careful when selecting music, as it can evoke pain in listeners [example].

User research: let’s get this party—er, meeting started!

Music has become an essential aspect of our lives in today’s fast-paced world, as we have seen in all the previous examples. We use it as a partner in various activities and disciplines, including work. However, can we employ it in UX research?

Picture the scene: a softly playing background track that whispers a warm welcome, much like the acoustic melodies that grace your favorite coffee shop, elevating every sip of your brew. Music, our silent ally, promises to dissolve those awkward pauses and ease the tension, paving the way for a seamless flow of insights. Let’s dive into how a dash of melody can unlock a treasure trove for user research.

1. Share information 

In the “Zoom fatigue” era, we need to prepare ourselves and our colleagues for productive meetings. Participants may be present in a meeting, but their minds could be preoccupied with other matters. Imagine everyone staring blankly ahead, waiting for the meeting to begin and at the same time processing some other issues.

Incorporating a brief period of uplifting music at the start of a meeting can act as a transitional tool, helping participants shift their mental state and prepare for the discussion ahead. This practice can be particularly beneficial in busy work environments where individuals might have back-to-back meetings and need help refocusing.

Using music as your opening act does more than just fill the awkward silence; it orchestrates a mindset shift, priming the brain for a future symphony of ideas. Just like how the right song can turn a mopey morning into an epic day, the right playlist pre-meeting can transform it from a calendar filler into a productive powerhouse.

2. Collect information

Stepping into a UX research session can feel like entering uncharted territory—exciting yet a tad nerve-racking, especially if it’s a participant’s debut. Imagine swapping out those jittery vibes with the soothing serenades of instrumental tunes. 

Science backs up this musical move: slow-tempo melodies are like a mental massage, easing stress and coaxing out those golden nuggets of feedback. It’s a trick borrowed from the dentist’s office – where calming tracks turn dental dread into a chill visit and classrooms – transforming exam jitters into zen-like focus. Therefore, spinning a participant’s favorite instrumental playlist could be the secret ingredient to transforming first-time research session jitters into insightful contributions.

3. Brainstorm

While brainstorming with cross-functional teams, we aim to laser-focus our colleagues’ creativity and dial down the awkward silence moments. The secret weapon? A backdrop of lively tunes injects energy and sparks those tasks.

Science backs this up: moderate background beats have been shown to unlock creative thinking, according to a study published in the “Journal of Consumer Research.” In addition, listening to ‘happy music’  is associated with increased divergent thinking [17] [18], which is the thought process used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. Therefore, crank the music up just right and watch the creativity flow like a river.

I’m not saying music magically turns every session into a goldmine of insights. And we definitely don’t want to blast ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and have everyone singing instead of talking. But what if a little background melody could make the whole experience smoother and more fruitful?

Worst case, we all get to listen to some cool tunes. In the best case, we might hit a new level of user research brilliance. Let’s tune into this idea and see where the rhythm takes us!

Curtain call: books that drop the beat

Want to dive deeper into the symphony of sounds and science? Check out these chart-topper books about your brain on music:

  • Good Vibrations by Stefan Kölsch 
  • Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks
  • Music, Thought, and Feeling by William Thompson
  • Psychology of Music: From Sound to Significance

Cover photo by Vishnu R Nair on Unsplash

Diana Prokusheva

Diana works as a Product Research Team Lead in Prague. She manages a distributed research team at Semrush, a global SaaS company that helps improve online visibility and discover marketing insights.

Diana is an experienced product researcher with over 8 years of experience in user experience. She was the driving force behind creating the UX research team in her company 5 years ago and continues to lead the team. With her expertise in user experience design, research, SEO, and marketing, she helps mentees from different companies to solve complex problems with innovative solutions.

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