This is Your Brain On Advertising Music

Originally published on Tumblr.

Over the past 20 years advertising jingles have become a pariah in the creative ad community. I recall once seeing an ad agency’s Christmas card that read “____Bells, ____Bells, ___all the way. (Sorry, we don’t do jingles)”. During the same time period, ‘branding’ has evolved to become the biggest buzzword in the ad business. Over this same time period, many advertisers have moved to licensing popular songs that lack a branded message. This makes no sense to me and, in fact, it flies in the face of both advertising and neuroscience research conducted over the past two decades.

Only 5% of prime time TV ads with music use jingles (logos/ original customized ad songs) compared with 15% using popular songs3. Only 5%? This jingle figure seems low to me but it confirms my long held view that customized ad songs over-represent their brands within the soundscape of noise out there. By extension, those same advertising songs and the messages they carry will over-represent themselves in the minds of target audiences. Why is that so, and why have advertisers moved away from using branded audio in favor of unbranded pop songs by a ratio of 3 to 1?

Everything You Imagine Is Real

To start, let’s explore your brain on advertising music and why music performs so well as a memory/recall device. Using brain mapping technologies such as fMRI and PET scans scientists are now tracking neural pathways to explore how music is processed. Many of the findings have relevance to advertisers and provide insight into music’s influence on a listener.

In one experiment, subjects were asked to listen to a piece of music, then asked to imagine that same piece of music as an fMRI tracked neural pathway activity The neural pathways were virtually indistinguishable between the perceived and imagined music.15

Why is this relevant to an advertiser? If imagined music is as real in the mind as perceived music, then it follows that planting a musical memory device, an earworm, provides additional frequency of real impressions without buying extra media time, the most expensive component of any ad campaign. A memorable piece of branded ad music today can influence a customer’s evaluation of a brand for a lifetime, long after the music was broadcast.

A basic axiom of neuroscience is that ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’17. It’s how we learn. It’s how we make associations. When two neurons fire repeatedly at the same time, a neural connection is created. It follows that music and message that wire together, fire together. Why have so many brands abandoned this principle for their creative? Using unaltered pop songs attempts to establish a cultural connection between a brand and consumer. But what is the point if the branding isn’t established strongly?

What‘s Emotion Got To Do With It?

Many of the best ads reach their targets through emotion, not logic. Music is a proven mood and emotion influencer. In one research experiment, subjects looked at emotionally neutral images while listening to different moods of music. The neutral images were perceived as either happy or sad depending on the corresponding emotional qualities of the music the subjects were hearing. Music is a bottom up function5 (perceived in its entirety) that enters the mind through the brainstem and influences subsequent pathways through the logical and visual brain 5. Music is processed sooner than visuals and spoken words. It is the first influencer whenever it is employed. A likeable music track predisposes someone to like other features of the ad; that likeability transfers to the brand. 2

Why does music make us feel? Music triggers the release of dopamine into the pleasure and emotion centers of the brain. While experiencing music, we take on the qualities of emotional arousal; pupils dilate, blood pressure rises, electrical conductance of our skin lowers, blood is directed to our legs and feet.14

Winning The Battle Of The Brands

Simply getting someone’s attention and getting them to like an ad still does not guarantee that they’ll remember the ad. That’s why music’s memory & recall capacities are such powerful weapons in the ongoing Battle of the Brands. Music memory is complex because it involves multiple processing contexts4. Semantic musical memory, primarily a left brain function, involves the sense of familiarity with a music’s internal language (e.g. minor keys are darker and sadder in tonality than major keys) Episodic memory, primarily a right brain function, involves recalling former contexts associated with a musical pattern (e.g. California surf music is associated with summertime fun at the beach). Memory for pitch is primarily a left brain function1 and is intertwined with timbre (tonal color) which is what helps us to distinguish and identify the both sound and moods of different spoken voices15. The more congruent the musical, tonal and contextual associations, the more easily the elements wire together.


In 2002, using a hip hop beat, a familiar tonality and a simple melody, McDonalds planted an earworm that was able to connect a generation to a new image in just a few seconds. “Buh-da-bup-bup-bummmmm”. Can you hear that melody in your head now? Are you hearing it again? And again? That’s an earworm.

Earworms are those musical phrases that get stuck in our heads, working outside of our control, making them at times impossible to ignore. Advertising earworms have been a successful branding tool since 1923 when General Mills aired what is considered to be the first advertising jingle.1

Musical memory is somewhat illusory; we don’t recall compositions in their entirety, we recall fragments and reconstruct details at the moment of recollection (multiple reinforcing cues10). Earworms are usually the most memorable fragment of a given composition, generally musically & rhythmically simple, usually combining an element of familiarity with a unique twist.

Sleep Country Canada’s iconic soundmark has two distinct phrases, the brand name and the slogan (Why Buy a Mattress Anywhere Else?). This advertiser has managed two musical earworms in 5 seconds. Now try to get this ad song out of your head. Now think of the media Sleep Country Canada doesn’t have to buy to remain top of mind.

Ads containing sound logos demonstrate more brain activity and stronger brand association than those without sound logos28. Ads with vocalized logos show increased brain activity over instrumental logos. Ads with sound logos attract more attention and arouse more emotion than those without logos. The earlier a logo is employed in an ad, the more effectively the message is recalled28.

The World Wide Worm

The basic principles of how music is processed in the brain don’t change with the new communication portals employed by advertisers. What worked in 1923 still works today. Here’s something that puzzles me. 70%-80% of Youtube viewers skip ads at first opportunity27, usually within 5-10 seconds. Hence, advertisers have about 5-10 seconds to make their impression on most viewers. Yet the vast majority of ads that appear lack an audio branding message within those first 5-10 seconds (often there’s neither a spoken, sung or texted branding on screen in the first 10 seconds). An advertiser paid for my attention and left zero impression on me. Why would any advertiser consciously make a decision to NOT brand within these first precious seconds of attention? Branded audio at the head of these Youtube ads would assure, at minimum, a branded impression on most views.

The Second Screen Is Not Visual

TV ads without a branded audio signature, especially ones employing original master recordings of popular songs, land on deaf ears to people who leave the room or keep their TVs on in the background. Those TV advertisers who don’t use the opportunity to audio brand get diminished value and reach for their dollar. (Sure, anyone can hit the mute button, but the ad being muted is being ignored anyways.) If you can get your audio branding in right at the head, the advertiser can still wedge in an impression before most people can mute the audio.

Marketers are now addressing what is being called ‘the second screen’, the smart phone or tablet that people, especially the young, are using while watching TV programming. The fact is that the real second screen is the audio of the first screen.

The audio track could even be considered the first screen. We know that music is processed before the visuals. Another feature of music is that it is processed in both conscious and unconscious listening situations7. A music driven ad message still gets in even if the listener is tuned out. Advertisers who don’t employ a branded audio component don’t reach the many viewers/listeners who simply aren’t paying full attention to the message.

The Announcer Said What?

Auditory Masking21 is an important brain process to consider during the production process. It’s very common nowadays to hear a pop song in a commercial, but these ‘needle drops’ have one big production disadvantage; there is often singing on the master track which cannot be adjusted to accommodate announcer messaging. Auditory masking, also known as the ‘cocktail party effect’21, is a complex subject that is very relevant to the commercial producer. The balance of elements (the mix) within an audio soundscape, the announcer, singer, backing instruments, & sound effects, is critical. We may hear an entire sound mix as a bottom up brain process but the top down filtering, the process that advertisers need to access, is compromised when production elements obstruct each other.

No advertiser would deliberately produce an unclear message. Yet, ads these days routinely have announcer voice competing for attention with the sung vocal of the popular music recording. To avoid auditory masking, advertisers are well advised never to put spoken messages over vocalized backgrounds. To avoid audio masking, the key message, whether it’s in the voiced message or part of the sung lyric, should always be a foreground feature with minimal interference from other production elements. Especially those elements that are in the same frequency range as the voice. The brain says so. We’ve moved away from this principle to the detriment of the advertisers’ messages.

Popular Songs: To Alter Or Not To Alter

The use of an appropriate popular song has proven to be effective for some advertisers. Pop songs are usually employed more for the relevance to the narrative or the cultural messaging of the commercial than for the branding of features of a product or service. But research shows that a popular song’s effectiveness depends on the personal significance of the song to the consumer24. The choice of song to be licensed is especially critical because we live in an era of fragmented music tastes where songs of universal significance are fewer. The congruency of the song with the brand is a more critical factor than ever before.

With regards to producing an ad featuring a popular song, the question is whether to alter (i.e. record a new version) or not to alter the original. Attention & memory induction are not always equally achieved using popular songs. Altered versions of popular songs achieve superior results in attention, memory for brand, and intention to buy than unaltered tracks do. Unaltered vocal versions show stronger attention and memory scores only when the song is of personal significance to customers. Vocals, altered or original, perform better than tracks without vocals, regardless of personal significance to target. 2 Altering a known recording provides a twist on the familiar, which in turn provides a memory handle to the listener.

It seems rather pointless to win a target’s attention but fail to induce a memory of the message or brand. Advertisers pay significant fees for use of master recordings. Unless the song has mass universal appeal with personal significances, commissioning altered (cover) versions offers the best chance of success in having a message recalled and usually costs less to produce than purchasing a master recording license for an existing recording. Altering also provides an advertiser the advantage of avoiding auditory masking between production elements, customizing the salient elements of the licensed song to suit the specific message and, last but not least, including a branded audio signature.

Likability + Congruency = The Winning Formula

A key variable for advertisers is musical likability (an affective response) and musical congruency (a cognitive response), i.e. music’s appropriateness to the brand’s message. Likeability has significant positive impact on a target’s evaluation of a brand and intention to buy, with or without a congruent message. Research shows that the greater the fit between the music and the main message, the greater are both the memory/recall and impact on intention to buy.2 The best results for advertisers occur when their music is likeable and the message is congruent with the brand.

Opportunity Doesn’t Just Knock, It Sings

Employing music is hardly the only format option for presenting an advertiser’s message, but at a miniscule rate of 5% of prime time TV ads, right now there’s a big opportunity for brands to stand out from the crowd, achieving better short and long term returns from their ad budgets by wiring their brand information to a music memory device.

It’s not brain surgery, just smart advertising. Hey…Badda Boom, Badda Bing*.

Asher Ettinger (Thinkmusic, Asher Music) has created & produced over 1,500 spots for advertisers, including the iconic *East Side Mario’s earworm quoted above.

Sources & Bibliography

1) Cognitive Neuroscience of Music” – Wikipedia

2) Music and Responses to Advertising: The Effects of Musical Characteristics, Likeability and Congruency – Jean Phillipe Galan – Journal Of Advertising Research

3) A Content Analysis of Music Placement in Prime-Time Television Advertising – David Allan – Journal Of Advertising research

4) “Neuroscience and Music; A Likely Relationship” Room 217 Foundation

5) The Neuroscience of Music, Mindset, and Motivation – Christinan Bergland 12-29-12

6) Music For Commercials And Audio Logos – MRI Brain research (part 1) – Wouter Siteur––––

7) Music For Commercials And Audio Logos – MRI Brain research (Part 2) – Wouter Siteur

8) Memory, Emotions and Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Influence of Music in Advertising on Brand and Endorser Perception Vanessa Apaolaza-Ibáñez, Mark Zander and Patrick Hartmann1 African Journal of Business Management 

9) “Language Of Music Really Is Universal” Science Today Mar 20,2009

10) “Earworms: Songs That Stick In Your Head”Inteview with Daniel Levitan

11)“The Brain Speaks: The Operation of Radio Advertising in the Brain.Mindshare Netherlands

12) “Music; It’s In Your Head Changing Your Brain” – MDG Advertising

13) “Earworms; Why Catchy Tunes Get Stuck In Our Heads”. Tom Stafford – BBC

14) “The Neuroscience Of Music” – Jonah Lehrer – Wired Magazine 1-19-11

15) This is Your Brain On Music. Dan Levitan Plume Publishing

16) The Brain That Changes Itself Norman Doidge – Penguin Books

17) MusicophiliaOliver Sacks – Vintage Books

18) Memory And Attention In MusicDiana Deutch

19) Audio Illusions – Diana Deutch –

20) Cocktail Party Effect” – Wikipedia

21) “Auditory Masking” – Wikipedia –

22) Your Brain On Music – CNN

23) The Effects Of Musical Fit On Consumers’ Ability To Freely Recall Related Products Joanne Yeoh & Adrian North – Empirical Musicolgy Review

24) Effects Of Popular Music In Advertising On Attention and Memory David Allan – Journal Of Advertising research.

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