Music is…

Music is a mood enhancer. The soundtrack to your life, to your experiences current and past. Music highlights the drama in your life, the carefree moments with friends, the intensity of a shootout in a movie or game. Music and sound build off of what we already feel and amplifies it when done correctly to saturate our senses in the mood of the moment.

But music and sound are largely background effects, unnoticed when done correctly and disruptive when done poorly. When done poorly, e.g. there is a large disconnect between the music and actions, there is a large contrast between what the scene is telling us to feel and what the music says to feel. This dissonance affects our experience of the scene but does it also influence our behavior in the moment?

Though music is largely experienced in the background, haven’t you ever felt the accidental change in behavior when that music changes? Take a faster stride when the pace of the music picks up? Taking in your surroundings when the a slower more thoughtful song starts? Remembering an emotion or a moment when a somber or sad song gets played, swelling the wave of emotions from the calm that you once had?

music amp gameplay amp deicison

Don’t you find it peculiar that music can change how you’re acting? We’ll explore this and more below the break

Background Effects on Decisions

To even start the discussion, we need to go over how our decision making even works.

We’ll be covering some of the same research from the Brands as a Frame post, but we can go over the highlights as a refresher.

Daniel Kahneman in 2003 published a paper which describes that we have two modes of decision making, System 1 being focused on fast-paced intuition, subconscious, and automatic responses; while System 2 is focused on slower, rational analytics, and conscious reasoning. [1]

This is important because System 1, the subconscious, automatic decision making system, is the one that largely affects our day to day experience of life and the one that is largely affected by our environment and the current contextual situations that we find ourselves.

One study showed that affecting our senses such as scent affects our choices in situations. This study showed that permeating the scent of pleasurable odors like baking cookies or roasting coffee beans in a public mall caused people to help others out, for example if someone dropped their bags others would be more willing to help out. (Ackermann, 2010) [2]

Another study showed that even our expectations of an experience are a System 1 function, meaning that what we expect to experience from a situation is largely automatic and built from past experiences.

To illustrate this, one study presented brown pudding to participants and asked how it tasted. Many of them described the taste of chocolate pudding, even though half of the participants received brown vanilla pudding. (Hoegg 2007) [3]

Ok, so taste and smell can be linked to subconscious changes in behaviors and automatic expectations, but can the same be applied to sound?

An Atmosphere to Experience

Sound and how we experience it has been studied for a long time, but more recently there’s been research to see how music actually affects our decision making. This is notable because before this, Behavioral Psychology recognized that the context of which we make decisions (e.g. our immediate environment, our personal background, the events that lead us to the moment of making the decision, etc…) affect the kinds of decisions that we make, but music and sound weren’t studied to the same effect. It was more generally researched in the context of consumer behavior, e.g. How context such as packaging, store layout, personnel behavior, and even music affects how we shop and how interact in a business establishment, and became a subfield known as Atmospherics [4].

An early study in the field was done in retail stores where stores experimented on what kind of music got people to spend more money and had various experiments on the matter. They experimented with things like loudness of the music, the pace of the music (fast or slow music), the genre of the music, etc…

The first done with experimenting on loudness of music found that less time was spent in stores and spending was higher when music was louder (Smith and Curnow, 1966) [5]

A different study experimented with the tempo (speed) of the music. They found that a slower-tempo song produced slower in-store traffic flow and more sales purchases per person. (Milliman 1982) [6]

Other research also showed that changes in music-induced behavior extends outside the shopping context as well. In a followup study by Milliman showed that faster paced music also reduces turnaround time for customers in restaurants, causing people to reduce at-table seating time from 56 minutes with slow-tempo music down to 45 minutes with fast-tempo music meaning an ability to serve more patrons with the same resources (tables/servers) per given time period. (Milkman 1986) [7]

Music and Atmosphere Changing our Gaming Behavior

Here’s the big “So What” of the matter.

So what that music is experienced in the background, largely automatically.

So what that music and other background effects to our senses can affect our behavior so drastically?

Music and the scene we’re experiencing, like gameplay, work hand in hand. Exciting, energetic music amplifies the exciting, action packed gameplay which enhances that music. It’s a feedback loop that propagates on itself and the end result is a change in what we do and how we interact within the game

Gameplay, Music Feedback

More generally, the context amplifies our emotions which feeds back into enhancing how we experience our context, all of which affects how we make decisions.

Environment, Emotions influence Decision Making

This isn’t just a phenomenon for fast-paced exciting music as well. Dissonant music mixed with the survival/horror element builds off of one another to promote the feeling of uneasiness and reckless hurried behavior.

But more importantly what the research shows is that even just changing the music in a situation causes decision making to change, i.e. exciting music causing excited, erratic behavior.

music gameplay amp deicison

This is important because that means music is a key component in cueing a player not just in how to react to a scene, but to know how to act within a scene. The fast exciting music cueing that a player needs to prepare for a fight, but also using a slow contemplative piece to cue for a player to explore the area and take their time. This may go in contrast with the context of scenes that occurred recently within the game, like just finishing a shootout and a reaction that there might be more coming prompting a quick escape vs the player knowing subconsciously that it’s ok to meander about for a bit because the danger has let up.

This shows why music choice is important for particular areas of your game. Take Legend of Zelda games trying to keep motifs of Adventure in the overworld and slower paced Exploration music in its dungeons and caverns or the faster more hectic Combat music of the bosses, irrespective of the emotion that they are trying to convey like the carefree nature of the towns in light world vs the contrasting despair in the dark world and so on.

This also leads to a discussion of the interesting choices that some games make in how they use music within their game.

Take Uncharted 4, for instance.

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Of the Uncharted games, Uncharted 4 probably uses music the least within the game. The game even opens up to a title screen with a dim soundscape. No fanfare, no recognition to the main theme of the Uncharted series.

Compared to Uncharted 2 which tries pulling you back in as quickly as possible.

The only real time the game leverages music are during the shootouts to signify when you’re in a shootout and when a shootout is over with, and a few character interactions scenes, notably the one with Elena at the end of Chapter 17 as you drive towards the final stages of the game.

Outside of these notable moments, music isn’t leveraged much within Uncharted 4.

What that also means is that a player’s choice in how they want to interact within the scene is largely up to themselves since the music isn’t acting as a cue to how they should interact. It’s your choice if you want to explore an area or leave it quickly because you want to find out what happens next or you think that more baddies are on the way and you’re trying to get out before that happens. It’s a strange choice to make because it’s largely a player directed choice against the Uncharated’s cinematic style for a potentially exploration based one. The series has always tried to ride the line between cinematic vs exploration based gameplay and it leads to a potentially larger disconnect depending on who is playing the game.

This also leads to exploring Antithetical Music, or music that goes against what a scene is trying to convey.

Take a game like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The first scene has you infiltrating a tanker ship only to cause it to sink forcing a dramatic escape. While the cinematics lend itself to the gravity of the situation, the music has some issues.

While the music and the scene try to go for dramatic intensity, there is a difference between 80s and 90s action drama versus contemporary action-drama background.

Compare this to an escape sequence in Modern Warfare 2

Dissect the scene all you’d like around loneliness and unparalleled odds, but the sense of danger brought just through the music is much more pronounced than just “cinematic-excitement” that the Modern Warfare clip showed.

In short, how we act and the decisions that we make are affected by many things. Too many things. Music is only one of the many things that affect our choices, but it’s experienced primarily subconsciously which can lead us to do things we might not normally do and change how we experience a situation. So if you want a player to do something in particular or feel something specific, maybe the right kind of music will cause them to act that way. At least try to get the music to match the scene, because when it doesn’t it not only makes the scene suffer but changes the tone and our behavior in the moment to something that you probably didn’t expect.

Twitter: @GIntrospection

Other Bias in Gaming Posts


[1] Kahneman, D (2003). “A perspective on judgement and choice”. American Psychologist. 58: 697–720.

[2] Ackermann, Nocera, Barth (2010). Incidental haptic sensations influence social judgments and decision. Science, 328, 1712-1715

[3] Hoegg, Alba (2007). Last perception: More than meets the tongue. Journal of Consumer Research, 33, 490-498

[4] See Atmospherics

[5] Smith and Curnow (1966), “Arousal Hypotheses and the Effects of Music on Purchasing Behavior,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 50 (3), 255-256

[6] Milliman (1982), The Effect of Background Music Upon the Shopping Behavior of Supermarket Patrons,” Journal of Marketing, 46 (3), 86 – 91

[7] Milliman (1986). The Influence Of Background Music on the Behavior of Restaurant Patrons. Journal of Consumer Research, Vol 13, No 2 (Sept 1986) 286-289