Photo credit: Michal K

Sick of dull, grey, winter days? New research by psychologists at Goldsmiths, University of London suggests that listening to happy-sounding music could trick you into seeing the world a bit more brightly.

Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya and Job Lindsen (Department of Psychology) conducted a series of short experiments where participants were asked to judge the brightness of a grey square when it was presented before and after a short excerpt of music.

Twenty adult participants were shown the first grey square for one second, and were then played an unfamiliar randomised piece of music composed for research, for nine to 17 seconds. They were asked to rate the music on a scale of ‘very unpleasant’ to ‘very stimulating’. They were then shown a second grey square.

The second square was identical to the one presented earlier, but participants who rated their musical excerpt to be pleasant judged the square to be brighter than the people who rated their musical excerpt more negatively.  

In a second experiment, a different 20 participants repeated the process, but were not asked to evaluate the music before being shown the second square.

Again, the second square was judged to be brighter by participants who’d been played music pre-judged by the researchers as being positive. ‘Sad’ music made the grey square appear darker.

“In the second experiment we didn’t ask our subjects to evaluate the emotional content of the music first, but the results were the same. This indicates that brightness judgement bias may be an automatic effect,” explains Professor Bhattacharya. “Merely listening to happy or sad music affects subsequent brightness judgement.”

The researchers performed a third experiment with another 20 adults who were asked to learn a grey scale with brightness varying from one (completely black) to 100 (completely white). They were then played music of various styles and asked to judge another square. Those who were played positive music judged the square to be brighter than its real level of brightness on the original grey scale.

All three experiments produced a very similar outcome.

Professor Bhattacharya concludes: “From everyday phrases like ‘look on the bright side’ and ‘the forces of darkness’ to the rituals and attire of weddings and funerals, a prevalent metaphor in our culture is the association of the concept of good and evil, or happiness and sadness, with brightness and darkness.

“Across three experiments we have shown that relatively short pieces of music could be used as effective emotional primes for influencing how bright we judge something to be. It demonstrates the powerful way music can affect our bias, and that this bias is aligned with the way we use metaphor.”