Skip to main content

This article title has given me a little tune that will surely get stuck in my head later. But it also has a strong message, which draws attention to the focus of this weeks’ scientific blog: the importance of considering the way that you play music for the public. Ignoring consumers’ psychological reactions to the quality of sound reproduction is likely to have negative consequences for customer satisfaction and related retail behaviours. 

Any public space that provides music to the public would be advised to think carefully about HOW they provide that music; consider music centres, amplification systems, and speakers. There are two reasons why choosing a bad (most often, very low cost) system might have negative effects. 

1) People react quickly and decisively when they are in an environment that is playing poor music. Immedia’s own survey suggests that people will vote with their feet and simply leave a store where they don’t like the music. And poor quality music reproduction (i.e. “tinny”) is never going to be popular. 

2) Poor music reproduction can lead to cognitive dissonance – a psychological feeling of upset caused when there is a gap between what people expect to hear and what they hear. 

The important point about cognitive dissonance is that people’s listening expectations fall in line with their own experience of music, which will largely be based on the systems that they have at home, in the car or on personal music devices. The vast majority of us do not invest hundreds of pounds in music systems, speakers or headphones; but even in this case a poor quality, tinny reproduction will not sound right as it is not what we are used to hearing. 

So, we are not talking huge investment here. A standard system that mimics the quality that most people would have at home is a good investment. Anything less could turn out to be a poor investment. 

Do people really notice changes in sound quality? Science tells us that they do. Olive (2011) found that people prefer the sound quality of CD to MP3 reproduction (where the sound is more compressed) indicating that they “can discern and appreciate a better quality of reproduced sound when given the opportunity to directly compare it against lower quality options.” Pras, Zimmerman, Levitin and Guastavino (2009) also found that people can reliable detect the difference between CD and MP3 quality, especially in genres like pop and rock. 

The science tells us that our ears are capable of extremely fine tuned judgments of sound quality. And if the music we are hearing, especially music we like, is not up to the usual standard then we are likely to be disappointed. In previous blogs I have written about how this type of disappointment in retail music can translate into a negative image. Poor quality music choices can suggest a lack of attention and care. 

The importance of sound quality came across to me when I considered my own behaviour. I like to visit my local shopping centre every couple of weeks as there is a lively fruit and vegetable market, and a number of small local shops. Since I spend a lot of time outside on these trips I usually play my own music on my iPod. But there is one local charity shop where I tend to spend a lot more time browsing compared to any other; thinking back on it now it is the only place where I consistently remove my headphones. The manager places nice upbeat easy listening music on a small music system, of the kind that most people own. And I like it. It feels just like being at home, but with a fantastic pile of vintage bags to explore! I hope they never change.