Thursday, 7 March 2013

Sippin’ on Gin and Juice! The effect of music on alcohol consumption

This post was written by Lisa Di Lemma and Andy Jones, who are researchers at the University of Liverpool.

In the previous fortnight we have both been to music gigs and this got us thinking about the effects of music on behaviour, particularly alcohol use. Music and drinking alcohol seem to go hand-in-hand, for example songs about drinking or the culture of gigs and music festivals (until fairly recently, Leeds and Reading music festivals were sponsored by Carling, and called the Carling Weekender). Our discussion coincided with the publication of an interesting piece of research examining how different music genres can directly influence  alcohol consumption, and we discuss this paper here.

We often listen to music to alter our mood states or to stimulate behaviours. For example, how many times have we reached for a certain CD when we feel bad? Or created a playlist of high intensity tracks for our gym session in order to push ourselves that little bit further? These anecdotes are backed up by scientific research showing that certain characteristics of music can influence mood and exercise performance.

Because of the large and varied effects that music can have on individuals, our exposure to music is now becoming more and more ubiquitous in commercial environments, and this is no coincidence. Research has shown that Classical music can increase spending in restaurants, and songs referring to alcohol in the lyrics can increase spending on alcohol in bars. Importantly, the effects of music on our purchasing behaviour may occur outside our awareness. A simple, but interesting, correspondence published in Nature demonstrated that playing French Music increased purchases of French wine, whilst playing German Music increased purchases of German Wine. When asked about the reasons for their purchase only 6 of 44 shoppers alluded to music influencing their choice. It is important to note however, that larger scale studies have failed to replicate these effects!

Specific genres of music are also more likely to be associated with the use of different substances, for example illegal drugs versus alcohol. Dance music and raves are associated with the use of stimulants and hallucinogens, which are taken to amplify sensory experiences and increase energy. Rap and Rock music lyrics often glorify drug and alcohol use, and videos for these songs are often party themed. Finally, artists often associate themselves with drug and alcohol use, which is very ‘rock n’ roll’.

However, these studies do not identify causality. Do particular types of music actually influence our consumption of alcohol, or of particular alcoholic drinks? A recent Dutch study looked at this issue. They recruited 249 young adults, who were tested in groups of their peers. A total of 32 groups of friends visited the ‘bar lab’ (a laboratory which is decorated to look like a bar) to take part in the study. On the day they visited, participants were asked to complete some questionnaires and, after a 50-minute break, to perform some group tasks. The purpose of the questionnaires and group tasks was to disguise the true aims of the study from the participants.

Critically, during the break participants were exposed to one of four different types of music: Pop, Hard Rock, Rap or Classical. While the music was played they were allowed to order alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks (which they didn’t have to pay for and weren’t forced to order). The researchers predicted that individuals who were exposed to Rap and Hard Rock would order the most alcoholic drinks, those exposed to classical music would order fewer alcoholic drinks, with those exposed to Pop music somewhere in the middle. However, this is what they found:

  • Participants who listened to Classical music ordered and consumed significantly more alcohol than those who heard Hard Rock or Rap, with an almost significant difference with Pop music (p = .07).
  • Looking at individual drinks, participants who listened to Pop and Classical Music drank more beer than those exposed to Hard Rock, whereas those who listened to Classical music drank significantly more wine compared to those who heard Pop or Hard Rock. Finally, Hard Rock music led to increased consumption of mixed drinks (e.g. rum and coke) compared to Pop and Classical music.
  • Importantly, individual music preferences, importance of music to the individual and susceptibility for exposure to specific genres did not influence these results, which suggests relatively uncomplicated effects of music on consumption of different types of drinks.  

Now, we don’t think that students associate Classical music with wild parties and binge drinking, so this result was a surprise to us. The authors also acknowledge this and suggest that the increased alcohol consumption may be due to a ‘prediction error’ mechanism. It is probably fair to say that Classical music is not the music of choice in bars that students frequent. Therefore, they suggest that ‘people might deviate more from what their habitual drinking is in a bar when they are exposed to atypical music for that context’.

There are some other caveats to this research that should be taken into account before people throw out their symphony and concerto CDs. Firstly, the musical preference ratings given by participants may have been influenced by recent exposure to that music. Secondly, the authors did not control for the lyrical content of their music, and as we have discussed this has been shown to influence alcohol consumption. We suggest that future research should also attempt to examine not only consumption of alcohol but also purchases of alcohol after exposure to different types of music. Would people still drink more alcohol after hearing Classical music, if they have to pay for their own drinks?

These findings suggest that music can have a subtle influence on our alcohol consumption. A recent, well-publicised study shows that that the shape of glasses can influence the rate at which beer is consumed.  Although background music and glass shape are very different issues, if we take these findings together they show that subtle cues in our drinking environments may drive us to drink, and we might not be aware that our behaviour is being ‘nudged’ in this way!

Target paper:
Engels, R.C., Poelen, E.A., Spijkerman, R., Ter Bogt, T. (2012). The effects of music genre on young people's alcohol consumption: an experimental observational study. Substance Use and Misuse 47, 180-188.

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