The MMIAM Journey

A blog about the Master of Management
in International Arts Management program

The Role of Background Music in Visitors Experience of Art Exhibitions: Music, Memory and Art Appraisal (Abridged)

The influence of music in retailing is widely discussed in the literature. Music is a powerful stimulus, and its presence can positively influence consumers’ affective, cognitive and behavioural responses. But, ambient music needs to be congruent with the specific product category or brand or with the overall experience. Music more effectively increases cognition when other cognitive cues are either absent or significantly reduced.

In art exhibitions, the aesthetic perception of a stimulus – the artwork – transcends a purely rational evaluation. Aesthetic experience in general and the contemplation of art in particular are special psychological processes involving attention focused on an object (i.e., the artwork) and the suppression of everyday concerns. Therefore, the venue of the exhibition is usually marked by a purposeful elimination or reduction of other visual stimuli in order not to distract the visitor from the artwork.

Mountain Dew Green Label Art Gallery by Chuck Anderson of No Pattern. Exhibited at Country Club Chicago. DJ Mother Hubbard. Courtesy: Creative Commons.

To test the effect of music in an art exhibition, the authors conducted two experiments. The first is a laboratory experiment in a virtual art gallery. It explores the effect of background music on the perception and memory of an art exhibition. In the experiment, the perception of an art exhibition is captured in terms of perceived valence, arousal and liking and the memory of it through the recall of artworks. The second is an investigation of the effects of background music in a field experiment in bricks-and-mortar art galleries. It extends the stimulus-organism-response (S-O-R) model by incorporating the concepts of experience and memory.

The findings show that music is an unfavourable stimulus in the evaluation of art (experiment 1) and in the emotional appraisal of the art experience (experiment 2). These findings stand in contrast with the general literature on atmospheric music in retail, which holds that music has positive effects on shopping behaviour. When experiencing art, it appears that music distracts from the emotional interaction and beauty that are associated with art.

However, when memory is introduced in the equation, results show background music to be a beneficial atmospheric element supporting the remembering process, either in the form of better recall of the presented artwork (experiment 1) or as a facilitator of the link between memory and behavioural intentions (experiment 2).

Galleries integrate the artist into the economy of a society and, by doing so, add commercial value to artwork. This study provides evidence that judicious management of the ambience of galleries can support this objective. Background music, as a sensual component of the art experience, may enhance visitors’ intentions to encourage others to visit the gallery and help them to remember their experience. Moreover, background music can induce positive emotions, which, in turn, act as a mediator between the art gallery experience and intention to recommend the gallery to others. So, art galleries can benefit from using background music. The particular music used as a stimulus, however, needs to be selected carefully. The music should match the style of the artwork, not be a stronger stimulus than that of viewing art, and be a complement to the process of remembering artwork, thus increasing the possibility of visitors recommending the visit to others.

The match between music and art style is a core factor in the appraisal of artwork. Failure to make such a match could result in an unfavourable appraisal. When one thinks about the possibility of buying an artwork or recommending the gallery to others, music fulfils a positive and important role in creating memories. Visitors may not buy an artwork during their first visit but may be open to visiting the gallery again due to the memory of a particular work.

Read the full article in the International Journal of Arts Management, Volume 22, Number 1, Fall 2019 (link to come).