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Want to feel powerful? Science says turn up the bass

Jennifer Van Evra

Ever used music to get you pumped up for a big workout, a big game or even a big night on the town?

There's nothing like the boost that music can give, but according to new research, that feeling of power that it delivers isn't a product of your imagination — and the songs that are most effective are the ones with big bass.

Dennis Hsu of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and his colleagues had noticed that, when they watched major sporting events, the athletes were often wearing headphones while entering the stadium or in the locker room, using it to mentally prepare for the big competition.

So Hsu and his team began looking at whether music can genuinely transform the psychological state of the listener, and specifically, if it can give them a feeling of power.

To start, the researchers pre-tested 31 songs from hip-hop to reggae, gauging how powerful people felt after listening to 30-second clips. From that test, they determined the most powerful songs (among them Queen's "We Will Rock You" and 2 Unlimited's "Get Ready for This") and the least powerful (Fatboy Slim's "Because We Can" and Baha Men's "Who Let the Dogs Out").

The researchers then conducted a series of experiments looking at how various songs affected people's sense of power, and three behavioral consequences of that sense: their tendency to see the big picture (thought abstraction), their sense of control over social events (perceived control) and the desire to move first in competitive interactions.

Published in Social Psychology and Personality Science, what the researchers found was fascinating: that high-power music not only evoked an unconscious sense of power, but that it affected all three consequences of power as well.

They also did a range of experiments to try and figure out which components of the music got people really pumped up, and it had nothing to do with the lyrics. Rather, it was the bass.

"We chose to manipulate bass levels in music because existing literature suggests that bass sound and voice are associated with dominance," said Hsu in a release, pointing out that bass sounds (think Darth Vader) are often used to exhibit dominance and confidence.

In the bass experiments, the researchers asked participants to listen to new instrumental pieces with varying bass levels, then asked questions and got them to do word completion tasks. After listening to the bassier music, they reported more feelings of power, and conjured more power-related words.

Now Hsu and his colleagues plan to study other ways music can induce power, and possibly lead to better performance in everything from job interviews to negotiations.

"Although significantly more research needs to be done before we can truly begin to understand music's effects on our psychological experiences, I believe our findings provide initial evidence for the potential strategic use of music, especially in situations where people need to feel empowered," Hsu says.

"People might want to explore whether pumping up their favourite tunes can quickly ease them into an empowered mental state before going into a first date, an important client meeting or a job interview."

Want to read the full text of the study? Find it here.