If you’ve ever used music to psych yourself up for a big presentation, an important negotiation, or a job interview, you’ll know that certain songs can evoke strong emotions.
But what is it about blasting beats that helps us to mentally prepare for these challenges?
According to a recent study, listening to certain music not only makes us feel more powerful, it can actually trigger other physical and psychological responses that are useful in the workplace and other social contexts.
“When people hear powerful music … they initiate tasks more often, they feel more in control in social situations and they’re more likely to see the broader connections instead of the details,” says Dennis Hsu, who conducted the research as a PhD candidate at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business, along with a team of management academics.
An avid sports fan, Hsu became interested in the topic after observing athletes pumping themselves up for major tournaments by playing music in the locker room.
His research team selected 31 music tracks from different genres, including pop, heavy metal, reggae and hip-hop. They then asked undergraduate students to listen to 30-second clips from each song and rate how “powerful, dominant, and determined” it made them feel.
The three most and least powerful songs were then used in a range of tasks.
The researchers found that people who listened to the most powerful music were more likely to succeed in abstract thinking tests — that is, they were better able to “see the bigger picture.”
These participants were also more likely to act first in a group situation, and felt more in control of the outcome of future events.
But what is it about some songs that makes people feel more powerful in the first place?
One factor is the bass, according to Hsu’s study.
When people heard a piece of music with the bass pumped up, they said they felt a greater sense of power than those who heard the same song with the bass lowered.
They were also more likely to act on those feelings of power. When participants were told they would be part of a three-person debating team, those who listened to the most powerful music volunteered to speak first nearly twice as often as those who listened to the least powerful music.
The researchers took the songs’ volume and lyrics into consideration to make sure these factors didn’t affect the outcome of their experiments.
Hsu hopes to conduct further research to determine whether other elements of music, such as the tempo or the pitch, can influence feelings of power in a similar way to the bass.
Previous research has revealed the benefits of workplace power trips. Feeling powerful can increase success rates in job interviews and business school applications, make employees more optimistic about taking risks, and improve job satisfaction.
Playing music is just one strategy to mentally prepare for challenges at work, according to Hsu. Other studies show that imagining oneself in a powerful situation, adopting certain body language — for example, dominant postures that take up more space — or simply having a job title that implies a position of authority, can help.
But music is one of the easiest ways to feel more prepared and make you perform better when you’re running low on confidence, said Hsu, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s management department. He warned managers against assuming that listening to music was a distraction for staff.
“In the office, for example if you’re going to meet an important client, or you’re going to have a negotiation with your supervisor about a pay rise … if you feel nervous, if you don’t feel in control, then the ideal way (to get ready) is to put on your headset and pump up the beats.”
BY CNN WIRE