Impulse shopping? Over-eating? Blame your ears.

The relaxing hush of ocean waves. The appetising sizzle of a sausage on the grill. The agitating shrill of a burglar alarm. There are certain sounds that tap into our psyche at a pretty profound level. And that’s nothing new. Twenty-four centuries ago, Socrates noted how ‘rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul’. Sound, in other words, goes deep.

According to Joel Beckerman, a composer who specialises in designing sound for brands, says hearing is the most important and influential of our five senses. ‘If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the right sound at the right moment is worth a thousand pictures.’ His book, The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy, takes a look at the ways in which both natural and created sounds shape our emotions and behaviour. To put it simply, there are many.

Sound makes us buy more – and influences what we buy.
It’s rare to enter any store these days without encountering some kind of musical soundtrack. And that’s a pretty smart move by retailers, because numerous studies have shown that music makes us buy more – and also influences the kinds of products we choose.

A 2015 experiment showed that playing a country music soundtrack increased the amount shoppers were willing to pay for utilitarian items, such as toothpaste or cleaning products, while classical music increased the amount they’d pay for ‘social identity’ products like clothing and jewellery.

A different study showed that playing either French or German music in a liquor store dramatically increased the quantity of either French or German wine sold. And shoppers had no idea they’d been swayed in such a way – all but 43 out of 44 individuals quizzed after their purchase had noticed the music at all.

Sound makes you work more efficiently – or less. Heard of Muzak? You might associate it with elevators and hotel lobbies – but in fact its roots are in the workplace.

In 1922 – before the days of commercial radio – a US army signal corps officer named General George Squier recognised that orchestral music played in offices could increase productivity. He created a kind of music that could be delivered to workplaces via electrical wires, patenting what he termed ‘Stimulus Progression’: groupings of songs designed to boost workers’ energy and output. Over a workday, rapid tunes with brass and percussion instrumentation were played between 11am and 3pm (when people are usually most sluggish) and slower, more gentle music after lunch.

Over the following decades, Muzak was played in thousands of workplaces – even the White House and on NASA space missions – to optimise performance. And no wonder. Studies have since shown that background chatter in offices kills productivity. According to Julian Treasure from consultancy firm The Sound Agency, being exposed to a single conversation between colleagues reduces your output by 66%. So clearly Squier was on to something.

Sound makes you love a meal – or hate it. 
Wondering why top hatted restaurants always play tasteful music? It’s not just about entertainment.

A phenomenon known as ‘sonic seasoning’ means that any taste you perceive is affected by the sounds you hear simultaneously. High frequency noises enhance sweetness, low frequency noises emphasise bitterness, and loud background noise makes food taste less intense and enjoyable generally. Despite this, loud music makes you eat more food, faster.

A 2016 experiment in Belgium (where else) showed that the phenomenon applies to beer as well – with sound influencing not just the taste but also the perceived strength of a beer. Participants, who were unaware that they were tasting in fact a single beer, rated the flavour of two different samples while exposed to various tracks. Researchers found that a ‘Disney-style track’ made the beer taste sweeter, while a deeper, rumbling bass made the beer taste more bitter. At the same time, individual musical tastes have an influence too, the study found, with participants ‘transferring his or her experiences and feelings about the music to the beer they happen to be tasting at the same time’.

Sonic seasoning also explains, in part, why food never tastes particularly great on a plane. The constant background hum, scientists say, affects all flavours except umami – perhaps one reason why many people order an umami-rich tomato juice or Bloody Mary inflight.

Sound, in other words, has a lot to answer for.
What we hear has more of an effect than we usually recognise. But being aware of its impact on your behaviour means taking back some control.

When you start noticing about the sounds around you, you become savvier to the ways it might influence you, says Julian Treasure. You can begin to consciously place yourself in acoustically healthy environments.

You can make sure you get a daily dose of birdsong (an instinctively reassuring sound) and a regular listen to ocean waves (a physiologically calming one.) And that’s got to be good for all of us.

For more information on the psychology of sound, contact your local clinic.

NHC blog is our place to explore ideas and themes of interest. For professional audiology advice, please contact your local clinic for a consultation.