Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

bass-guitar

(Photo: Sinelyov/Shutterstock)

Want to Feel Powerful? Pump Up the Bass

• August 06, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: Sinelyov/Shutterstock)

New research finds listening to certain types of music can increase one’s feelings of power, which can in turn influence thinking and behavior.

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.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.