Music in advertising: Groove is in the heart (and in the brain)

Kerry Schofield
May 7, 2020

When we hear music, we process so many elements and constructs to determine meaning, emotion and other actionable outcomes. We can do this in hundreds of milliseconds, involving a process so complex that only human cognition can evaluate and extract—sorry computers. With so many aspects of this process, I thought I would focus on rhythm. Mainly because my dyslexic brain can miss words in sentences, or have a hard time deciphering meaning. But I’ve always learnt well through music mostly because I can remember a particular word through an associated pitch. Or because I can recall a specific mathematical sequence because of a rhythm I’ve put behind it. So, just think about how powerful this could be when we translate this into the way we use rhythm and music in advertising.

But why do our brains function this way with music?

As Daniel Levitin describes, “Rhythm refers to the duration of a series of notes, and to the way that they group together into units.” Charles Darwin understood this fundamental concept even though he wasn’t the biggest music fan. In fact, he deemed himself unmusical even though he appreciated the impact on human evolution in sexual selection. We can all probably think back to the days we could all go disco dancing and see the best movers and shakers attracting their potential mates. Or, watching our favourite David Attenborough programme to see the male bird pulling out their best prances to attract their love interests.

How innate is our musicality?

We first experience music in the womb. From conception, we recognise pitch to distinguish our Mothers voice. We also understand rhythm from her heart rate and breathing. This is why we love lullabies as babies, with soothing tones and rocking motions. But what makes us like rhythm so much? Well, this has a lot to do with our brains and its structure and function. As a young girl, I fell in love with playing the piano. I found this valuable in expressing my emotions and creativity. But having a mind that has always worked a little differently, and with a case of curiosity, I turned my attention to psychology and neuroscience to understand why I love music as much as I do. So with the past ten years dedicated to this academically, I’ve learned that most of us process and respond in consistent ways unless there is a pathological reason why.

music in advertising

We like what we know, and we know what we like.

Our brains like patterns. We like to experience repetition. But rhythm is also a way for our brains to make predictions by creating expectation. The rhythm flows through the cerebellum, Latin for ‘little brain’. This plays an integral part in motor controls and emotional controls such as fear or pleasure. Once rhythm has passed through the cerebellum, it follows onto the limbic system, which is our hub for emotions and memory. We like rhythm when we can feel a groove, which is mainly due to syncopation. When unexpected patterns occur, we experience surprise. This makes music more enjoyable as a result of increased blood flow to the cerebellum.

I know what you’re thinking, enough, I’m bored of brains already.

I was speaking with a friend the other day about music and exercise. What I found interesting was when she said that she’s getting bored with music when she runs because nearly all music sounds the same. Good point. But when I asked what it is about music that makes her want to run, she told me that it needs to be fast and motivational. We know that neurons fire at the tempo set, and the body follows suit making our performance enhanced. And principle elite athletes have been taking advantage of this for decades.

Rhythm and music in advertising

So we know rhythm performs similarly within other aspects such as evolution, social bonding and exercise. Something with a good beat, a groove, can literally drive us to execute certain behaviours. So if we can identify the use of rhythm in these related areas, we can also take advantage of this as we use music in advertising campaigns, branded communications and messaging.

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