Ivory Towers: I'll have a largo shandy

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CAN listening to fast music played backwards make you drink more Coca-Cola? There is, as yet, no definitive answer to that question, but two recent academic papers provide important clues.

'Fast Music Causes Fast Drinking' by Heather McElrea and Lionel Standing (Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1992) built on earlier research demonstrating the effects of music on behaviour. Smith and Morris in 1976 had shown that fast music made people more emotional than slow music, while Roballey, McGreevy, Rongo, Schwantes, Steger, Winniger and Gardner in 1985 had further demonstrated that fast background music made people eat more quickly.

The new study began by randomly assigning 40 female undergraduates into two groups, and asking them to drink a can of soda, ostensibly to assess its flavour. Each group was subjected to the same background medley of quiet piano music, but one heard the songs played at a metronome rate of 132 beats to the minute, while for the others the rate was 54.

Those who listened to slow music took an average of 13.52 minutes to drink their sodas, while the quick tempo speeded up the time to 9.70 minutes. They conclude that the effect 'has obvious implications for the consumption of alcohol in public places'. You won't get Brahms and Liszt if you stick to largo.

But what if the music contains a subliminal message, played backwards? In another piece of research reported in the same journal ('Effects on Backward-Recorded Messages on Attitudes' by Lyle C Swart and Cynthia L Morgan), subjects were played a doctored version of the song 'Dark Light' by the group Beat Farmers, which had been re-recorded to include three backward-played messages: don't take drugs; stay in school; clean your room. After listening to the song, the subjects filled in a questionnaire to measure their attitudes to drugs, school and tidiness. There were, however, no statistical differences between subjects who had heard the song without the backward messages, those who had heard the message three times, and those who had heard it six times.

Previous research had shown that three times is the most effective number to tell anybody anything: any fewer may not overcome initial resistance, any more will be liable to lead to boredom. It had also been shown that subliminal backwards repetition of the words 'Hershey's chocolate' or a simple message proclaiming the goodness of Coca-Cola, might make people buy more chocolate, or feel thirstier, but this heightened state 'is not brand-specific'.

It is suggested that the messages relating to drugs, school and room-cleaning may be conceptually more complex than Hershey's chocolate and therefore hard to grasp subliminally.