By Steven G. MehtaSteve Mehta

Song writer, E. Y. Harburg once said, “Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.”  Well scientific research has helped to make that quote true.  Most of us feel moved when we listen to a good song.  In fact, studies have shown that in the dispute context, music can help to make parties more reasonable.  But can music change the way we feel about others?

Researcher, Dr Joydeep Bhattacharya at Goldsmiths, University of London discovered that that it is possible to what we think about another person’s emotions simply by listening to music.  In Dr. Bhattacharya’s research, volunteers were asked to listen to a short musical excerpt (15 seconds) before they were then asked judge the emotional content of a face.

The research found that listening to happy music significantly enhanced the perceived happiness of a face and likewise listening to sad music significantly enhanced the perceived sadness of a face.  Interestingly, music had the greatest effect when the face was emotionally neutral. Further, by recording brain waves, the study showed that prior listening to music could induce changes in the brain patterns which are usually only in the subconscious control.

Applying The Research

One thing that a mediator needs to be able to do is to keep the tempo for mediation running.  Often, people rely on the mediator to be able to project a positive attitude towards the resolution. It is worthwhile, based on this research, to listen to “happy music” prior to the mediation to put yourself in the right mood as well as putting you in the right state of mind to listen to difficult conversations.  This is consistent with my own personal experience when listening to happy music. Not only does the music change my mood, but the happy music also allows me to give people the benefit of the doubt when facing tough mediations. 

Another thing the negotiator might consider is to provide background music. Logically, if happy music allows you to interpret other people as being happy and sad music allows you to interpret other people as being sad, relaxing or easy listening might allow other people to interpret you as being calm. Moreover, the easy listening music might also assist in calming the participants.

Many things in mediation are very subtle. Generally I’ve found that the subtle things that can be done by a mediator to help the parties to resolution are often the most critical tools in the mediator’s toolbox.

Research Reference:

Logeswaran et al. Crossmodal transfer of emotion by musicNeuroscience Letters, 2009; 455 (2): 129 DOI: 10.1016/j.neulet.2009.03.044