How music can make us feel powerful

The research team, including Dennis Hsu of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, recently published their findings in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science.

Hsu says he and his colleagues gained inspiration for the study from watching major sporting events. They noticed that athletes had their earphones on in the locker room and as they entered the stadium.

"The ways these athletes immerse themselves in the music - some with their eyes steely shut and some gently nodded along the beats - seem as if the music is mentally preparing and toughening them up for the competition about to occur," says Hsu.

Past research has found that listening to music can have many benefits, such as increasing learning and motivation and reducing physical pain. But Hsu and colleagues note that no studies have assessed whether music influences an individual's sense of power, and if so, how. This is what they set out to determine with this latest study.

Testing how songs influence the sense of power and its consequences

First of all, the team conducted a pre-test. This involved participants listening to 30-second clips of 31 pieces of music from an array of genres, including sports music, hip-hop and reggae.

Participants were asked to rate how powerful each piece of music made them feel, and the researchers then pinpointed the highest and lowest power songs.

Songs rated as most powerful included "We Will Rock You" by Queen and "Get Ready for This" by 2 Unlimited, while the least powerful songs included "Because We Can" by Fatboy Slim and "Who Let the Dogs Out" by Baha Men.

The researchers then conducted a series of tests to determine how each of the highest and lowest rated power songs in the pre-test influenced each participant's sense of power.

In addition, they looked at how the songs affected three psychological and behavioral consequences of power that have been identified in previous research: thought abstraction (tendency to see the forest instead of the trees), illusion of control (perceived control over social events) and the desire to make the first move in competitive environments.

Participants were required to carry out certain tasks to enable researchers to assess each of these three consequences of power. For example, to measure illusion of control, subjects were required to take part in a die-rolling task.

"Part of our objective was to test whether music produces the same downstream effects of power found in other sources," Hsu explains.

Participants were also questioned about any positive feelings they may be experiencing. The team controlled for these in order to ensure that any effects on power were not created by any other emotions.

Results of the experiments revealed that the songs rated most powerful unconsciously encouraged a sense of power among participants. Furthermore, the researchers found these songs actively generated the three consequences of power.

The researchers point out that it is not the lyrics of the songs that could have resulted in these findings. When participants read song lyrics without hearing the music, no powerful feelings were reported.

Heavy-bass music increases powerful feelings

Past research has suggested that the bass sound and voice in music are linked to dominance. Therefore, Hsu and colleagues conducted a series of experiments to see how bass levels - digitally varied in pieces of instrumental music - influenced subjects' sense of power.

Results revealed that the participants who listened to music with heavy bass reported higher feelings of power and formed more power-related words in a word-completion task, compared with those who listened to music with low bass.

The team explains that this particular finding may support the "contagion hypothesis." This is the theory that hearing parts of a song that express power can cause individuals to express these feelings in themselves.

"Importantly, because we used novel, never-before-heard music pieces in these experiments, it suggests that the effect may sometimes arise purely out of contagion," says Hsu.

The researchers note, however, that the sense of power encouraged by music could come from the "conditioning hypothesis" - the idea that certain music can evoke a sense of power because the listener associates the music with certain experiences.

They point out, for example, that "We Are the Champions" by Queen is a song frequently used to celebrate victory. Does this song evoke a sense of power in you?