How Music Hijacks Our Perception of Time

Composer Jonathan Berger, for Nautilus:

In recent years, numerous studies have shown how music hijacks our relationship with everyday time. For instance, more drinks are sold in bars when with slow-tempo music, which seems to make the bar a more enjoyable environment, one in which patrons want to linger—and order another round. Similarly, consumers spend 38 percent more time in the grocery store when the background music is slow. Familiarity is also a factor. Shoppers perceive longer shopping times when they are familiar with the background music in the store, but actually spend more time shopping when the music is novel. Novel music is perceived as more pleasurable, making the time seem to pass quicker, and so shoppers stay in the stores longer than they may imagine.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of musical hijacking is this: In 2004, the Royal Automobile Club Foundation for Motoring deemed Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie the most dangerous music to listen to while driving. It is not so much the distraction, but the substitution of the frenzied tempo of the music that challenges drivers’ normal sense of speed—and the objective cue of the speedometer—and causes them to speed.

I often disappear into music. I was one of those people who sat there in front of the speaker, listening to a new album as if I were trying to figure something out. Not to say that my appreciation was purely technical, but I’m fascinated by the tactical use of music to alter behaviors. It’s repellant in a way — using something beautiful for business ends. But it just shows how deeply ingrained music is to who and what we are.