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Cut To The Feeling: Music, Emotion and Media

Monday 4th June

Have you ever watched a horror movie without the soundtrack? No matter how creepy, or gory, or shocking, or tense the plot might be, without the background music even the most easily frightened person you know will be able to sit there in pretty much complete comfort.

As a notorious coward, playing my own music through headphones is actually my go-to tactic for getting through the rare occasion when I end up watching horror. Music in films isn’t just background noise – it’s one of the most important subconscious emotional cues which filmmakers use to evoke a response from their audiences. It’s not just in films that music can have a huge impact on emotional response, however. This effect is something which has a deep-seated connection in the human brain, and is experienced by most every day.

The fact that music and emotion are linked is hardly ground breaking. Ever since the Walkman was released in 1979, people have been building a soundtrack to their life which is often curated by emotions those songs evoke. However, it’s important to understand that the link between music and mood contains a huge amount of nuance – it’s not just that a song about a sad topic makes a person feel sad. Music can trigger emotions in a number of ways, but most commonly this occurs either by causing the listener to recall associations with the song (the context in which it was last heard, whether this is a place, time, person or feeling), and through the neurology involved in auditory processing. Going back to the earlier horror movie example, a sense of dread can be built by using dissonant chords, rapidly climbing pitches, and unexpected silences. By contrast, dubstep music’s popularity came from the emotional rush experienced when built tension releases. These influences all combine to create a unique emotional experience for each person – however, there are enough similarities that a person’s mood can be guessed based on the music they’re listening to; particularly if this can be combined with data.


As the behavioural planning agency, Total Media often explores the role of emotion in our campaigns. Some campaigns mean we need to target people by their emotional state, and other times require an emotional change or connection from the audience. One of the core principles of advertising is that it needs to build a relationship between an individual and a brand – at the core of every relationship is an emotion. The most important elements which create emotion, however, can often be overlooked. One of these is music.  Of course, creative teams spend a great deal of energy designing a brand’s soundscape; they understand that the role of music is both incredibly nuanced and incredibly important. However, in the world of media planners there has been less exploration than elsewhere into what links music, emotion, and behaviour.

With the proliferation of streaming music and social devices, people are spending a high proportion of their waking hours listening to music (Nielsen put the US average at over 4.5 hours a day in 2017). As a large amount of this is done on third party platforms such as Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music etc, people’s music habits create a wealth of (anonymous) data points which could be used to quantify, identify and isolate mood states to enhance audience understanding for marketers. As a purely sensory experience, music can speak to our subconscious, interacting directly with the Kahneman’s System 1 rather than the rational brain. If marketers and advertisers are able to integrate music into their understanding of emotion and behaviour, we will be able to create better campaigns.

Article Written by

Helen Bradshaw

Publishing Executive, Total Media

Helen is an executive on the Publishing Team, having worked at Total Media since graduating in 2015. Outside the world of media, she spends most of her time cooking, travelling, and adding to her vast collection of lipsticks.

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