Music to Your Brain: Background Music Changes Are Processed First, Reducing Ad Message Recall


  • This research was supported by The McIntire School, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904.

  • The authors are grateful to Morris Holbrook, David Mick, and Rick Netemeyer for helpful comments on an early version of the manuscript. The authors are also grateful to the Reviewers and Rajan Nataraajan, Executive Editor, for insightful comments and suggestions.

Correspondence regarding this article should be sent to: Cynthia Fraser, Assistant Professor, The McIntire School of Commerce, Rouss & Robertson Halls, South Lawn, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904 (


Background music captures attention, evokes images, and creates ambience, but may interfere with processing of advertised messages, reducing recall. Brains are hardwired to process unexpected background sound changes first, automatically preempting processing of brand message elements and reducing recall. The degree of this recall reduction depends on the structural characteristics of the music, as well as the advertised brand. Backgrounds with more frequent harmonic and textural changes create more frequent distraction, reducing message recall. Faster tempos increase the frequency of those distractions. However, faster tempos also enable streaming of like distractions, improving message recall. In Experiment 1, backgrounds, varying in harmonic, textural, and temporal characteristics, were compared across ads for six brands. Message recall was higher for ads with backgrounds with less-frequent change. Message recall from ads for new, unfamiliar brands suffered more from background music interference than from ads for established brands. In Experiment 2, background change frequency was reduced in two ads, holding all else constant, which improved message recall.