As its recent reincarnation on Broadway reminded us, you can’t separate Rocky from its music. It’s easy to believe the lovable underdog boxer could be a champion, so long as that rousing, brass-heavy score is roaring as insistently in his head as it is in ours.
But stirring sounds aren’t simply a way of generating excitement or enthusiasm. A new study finds certain types of music—especially tunes with a heavy bass beat—can make one feel more powerful. This sense of confidence and ability, the researchers add, can subsequently shape the way we think and behave.
“The effect of music appears to manifest itself not only in its ability to entertain, but also in the ability to imbue humans with a real sense of power,” a research team led by Dennis Hsu of Northwestern University writes in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. Writers such as Henry David Thoreau and George Eliot have intuited this link; science now provides hard data backing up their belief.
Hsu and his colleagues describe a series of studies, two of which manipulate a specific musical feature that is associated with action-inspiring anthems: Heavy bass notes.
"People can hear specific music components that express a sense of power, and mimic those feelings internally."
In one, 78 undergraduates listened to an original, two-minute-long piece of instrumental music in one of two conditions: With the bass line prominent or subdued. Afterwards, they “rated how powerful, dominant, and determined they felt,” as well as how strongly they were feeling three positive emotions (happiness, excitement, and enthusiasm).
“Participants who listened to the heavy-bass music reported greater feelings of power than those who listened to the light-bass music,” the researchers report. “Importantly, the amount of bass did not produce any effect on positive emotions,” meaning the sense of power was not the result of their feeling happier or more excited.
These results were duplicated in a follow-up study, in which the 52 participants who heard the bass-heavy sounds also came up with more power-related terms in a word-completion test.
How does this work? “Powerful people are more likely to speak with a deep, bass voice, and a bass voice is often associated with higher perceived power,” the researchers write, noting James Earl Jones’ foreboding tones as Darth Vader in Star Wars.
Apparently even a wordless reminder of this association is enough to make us feel more powerful. As the researchers put it: “People can hear specific music components that express a sense of power, and mimic those feelings internally.”
And that’s important, because people who feel powerful tend to act differently than those who don’t. In additional studies, participants who had listened to “high-power music” such as Queen’s "We Will Rock You" were more likely to step forward and go first in a debate competition.
Compared who listened to “low-power music” such as "Who Let the Dogs Out," they also scored higher on a test measuring abstract thinking, an ability that has previously been linked with power. This suggests music can, at least temporarily, help us to think in ways that are more typical of powerful people.
Perhaps this knowledge will give an edge to the musicians in the current union negotiations at the Metropolitan Opera. After all, they can always blast out a few phrases from "The Ride of the Valkyries" as their representatives head for the bargaining table.