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The Songs of a Siren

The Art of Background Music


Exhausted. Aching. Disoriented. You are engulfed by the freezing cold you as you stumble out of The Vic. Your iPhone informs you that it is 3 AM. Every cell in your brain begs you to be sensible, head home and begin the process of sleeping through your morning lecture — but your feet take you in the opposite direction. Tracing the echoes of Big Boss’ beats: you turn right onto Bell Street. Seconds later, Pitbull and Shakira course through your veins and you are revived: bopping along to ‘Hotel Room Service’ whilst awaiting your cheesy chips order.


Psychology often comes to the table when curating the perfect background music playlist. Like Big Boss’ trusty assortment of club classics and throwback hits, an establishment’s choice of music serves as a way to manipulate customer behaviour. For example: you may feel more inclined to make an expensive purchase with Lizzo playing in the background rather than Phoebe Bridgers. And similarly, when book shopping in Topping & Co, the lack of lyrics in the instrumental jazz music being played may urge you to focus on the words displayed in front of you.

But what happens when we apply reverse psychology to this logic? Take our local Pret as an example. I can conclude — both from my own opinion and upon conferring with others — that the music in Pret is simply… Bad. However, what if this isn’t a case of bad taste but the product of an ulterior motive? Whilst discussing this topic with my friend, she herself admitted that after hearing the same song repeat for the third time in under an hour she was left with no choice but to relocate her study session to the library. So perhaps Pret’s playlists are purposefully insufferable in order to make it uninhabitable as a long term study spot, and curb students from overstaying their welcome at tables.


Beyond the techniques, tricks and conspiracies behind establishments’ choices of background music is the desire to express their brand's identity by transporting customers into a different world. The old music played in Gorgeous Cafécoupled with the vintage decor, teleports customers back to the 1940s - making it feel almost as though the music is not playing out of a speaker but out of a golden gramophone. Similarly, in Taste of Scotland — the Scottish souvenir shop — the choice of hits such as John Denver’s ‘Take me Home, Country Roads’ simulate a feeling of nostalgia and belonging. And you can always count on the Nutcracker Christmas shop to whisk you away to the North Pole with a host of carols, jingle bells and festive classics.


This ability of background music to create a further dimension to the room in which it is being played is arguably more crucial today than ever. Especially in order to engage a younger generation of customers, who with their TikTok-glued eyed and eight second attention spans, need to be constantly immersed and engaged. Much like the rise of promenade and immersive theatre, background music can then transform the act of simply shopping or dining into a wider and more interactive experience. This idea has been captured by Spoiled Life — a store that promises not only the textures and colours of its clothing but the smell of coffee and the sound of relaxing beats in the background.


Despite this need for ‘more’, arguably the most enjoyable background music playlists are those that perfect the simplicity of reflecting their audience. Although the Union’s choice of music is highly questionable at night, during the day Rector’s Cafe can be heard playing a range of hits from Justin Beiber to the Smiths. Similarly, who can complain with a playlist filled with Arctic Monkeys and Tame Impala in BrewCo?


From controlling customer behaviour to encapsulating the aesthetic of the establishment within a single song, the act of curating a background music playlist is simultaneously both an art and a science. So next time you find yourself lured into the siren-like arms of Big Boss, perhaps take a minute to appreciate the genius behind the music.


Image: Wikimedia Commons


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