Pump-up songs make us feel capable and powerful. Athletes know that intuitively — batters swagger out to raucous walk-up songs, stars like Serena Williams and Lebron James warm up with headphones on (except when, in James's case, the headphones come off to blast Wu-Tang Clan in the locker room).
But what is it about a good pump-up song that makes us feel invincible? According to a new study, the answer is in the bass.
A research team at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Business began with what we know about music and power. Past studies had shown, for example, that heavy metal and hip-hop music are linked to dominance and aggression, which are associated with feeling powerful.
So the team, led by Adam Galinsky and his student Dennis Hsu, did a series of tests to isolate exactly what it is about certain music that makes us feel powerful. First, they asked people to listen to dozens of songs and answer questions about how powerful they felt while they listened.
From there, controlling for genre, they made a list of the top three most powerful songs:
- "We Will Rock You" (Queen)
- "Get Ready for This" (2 Unlimited)
- "In Da Club" (50 Cent)
And the three least powerful songs:
Then, the team had people listen to either the powerful songs or the not-so-powerful songs and asked them to complete various tasks. For example, they asked participants to fill in the blanks: P_ _ ER
Those who listened to the powerful music were much more likely to complete the word as power, rather than paper.
In another test, after participants listened to music they were presented with a dice game in which if they correctly guessed the result of a rolled die, they would win $5. They were given the choice to roll the die themselves, or have the experimentor roll the die.
"Usually a little bit more than 50 percent of people want to roll the die themselves," Galinsky explains to NPR's Arun Rath. "When people listen to high-power music they wanted to roll the die themselves 86 power of the time. And so what you can see here is it's making people more action-oriented."
In the final test, Galinsky and Hsu focused solely on the bass line of the songs. "Deep voices tend to be associated with power and bigger, stronger bodies tend to produce deeper voices," Galinsky explains.
To do that, they took an original piece of music — something none of the participants had heard before — and cranked up the bass.
Here's the music before:
And here is it after:
With the music playing the background, they asked people to do the word completion task from earlier, filling in the word P _ _ ER.
"What we found is when the song had higher bass in the music, that actually made them feel more powerful," says Galinsky.
And feeling powerful can be a good thing, even if you're not a pro athlete.
"People who have been made to feel more powerful can endure more pain," says Galinsky. He has also done a study showing that in a business school setting, people who feel more powerful are more successful in interviews.
So, in the spirit of news you can use to empower yourself, Weekend All Things Considered is asking you to share your pump-up songs with us on Twitter. Tweet @NPRWATC, and use #NPRPowerMusic.
We're compiling a playlist of power music to get you through August or ready for the new school year.
We'll add to it as your recommendations come in, but for now, you can hear it here.
[Note: You need to be logged in to a Spotify account to stream the playlist. You can sign up free here.]
ARUN RATH, HOST:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West and we are going to pump you up. A study out this week finds that music with a heavy baseline makes people feel more powerful. It's the secret behind pump up songs. Adam Galinsky is one of the study's authors. He explained how the experiment worked.
ADAM GALINSKY: We had a number of different individuals listen to a variety of different songs and we just asked them to rate how much did that song make you feel power? And then what we did in our study is we just took three songs that were rated as making people feel the most powerful - "We Will Rock You" by Queen, "Get Ready For This" 2 Unlimited, "In The Club" 50 Cent.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE CLUB")
50 CENT: (Singing) Go shorty, it's your birthday. We going to party like it's your birthday.
GALINSKY: And three songs that people rated as making them feel the least powerful - "Because We Can" by Fatboy Slim, "We Let The Dogs Out" by Baha Men and "Big Poppa" Notorious B.I.G.
RATH: OK. So then you asked people in the study to do tasks while they listened to either the high power songs or the low-power songs. What sort of things were they doing?
GALINSKY: So here's one of the tasks we did. People come in and they have an opportunity to roll a die. And if they get the number they yell out before the die gets rolled they get $5. So they're highly motivated, they want to win, you know, they want to get the right number. But we give them a choice - do you want to roll the die yourself or do you want the experimenter to roll the die? And what we find is usually, you know, a little bit more than 50 percent of people want to roll the die themselves but in our case when people listen to high-powered music they wanted to roll the die themselves 86 percent of the time. And so what you can see here is it's making people sort of more action oriented.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE CLUB")
50 CENT: (Singing) My money on my mind. Got a mil out the deal and I'm still in the grind.
RATH: Is there a way to correct for other influences, like, how do you know it's not the lyrics or the volume or something else?
>>(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE CLUB")
GALINSKY: Yeah. We can control for the amount of volume, for example, in the headsets and we match those all perfectly. We also then pretested the lyrics to make sure that just reading the lyrics didn't make people feel more powerful. What we did in our final study is we said, well, can we isolate the bass sound? Because deep voices tend to be associated with power. And we know that bigger, stronger bodies tend to produce deeper voices and so what we did and we took a piece of music that no one had ever heard before. And was simply manipulated the amount of bass that was in the music. And what we found was that when the song had higher bass in the music that actually made them feel more powerful.
RATH: You basically just cranked up the bass knob for the same song?
GALINSKY: Yeah, basically, just cranked up the bass knob.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)
RATH: What does feeling more powerful do for you? Do you do better at certain things? Do you have more energy and stamina?
GALINSKY: Yeah. I think, I mean, all those things. People who have been made to feel more powerful can endure more pain. We've shown that if you prime people to think about power before they walk into an interview they're, like, more than twice as likely to get these or business school applications - but, get selected into the business school than if they had thought about a time when they had low-power. I think music is a really interesting one because music can not only make you feel you powerful but make the whole group feel powerful.
RATH: So individual application might be listen to Skrillex or some dub step before a big job interview?
GALINSKY: Yeah. One of the things I think is what you want to do as an individual was find the piece of music that makes you feel powerful. It may be music that helps you do this, it may be the superwoman pose. You want to find the thing that works for you. But there's something out there that can work for everyone.
RATH: Adam Galinsky is a psychologist at Columbia Business School. He and Dennis Hsu have just published a study showing that heavy baselines and music make people feel more powerful. Adam, thank you.
GALINSKY: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPER BASS")
RATH: Tell us what makes you feel powerful. Tweet at NPRWATC and use the #NPRpowermusic. We're putting together an invincible Spotify playlist.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPER BASS")
NICKI MINAJ: (Singing) Bass. He got that super bass. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.