Cognitive Daily

i-4ebb2c6af435b6dbc71aedcaa02e63dc-golf.jpgMy son Jim’s favorite game, World of Warcraft, only works on my computer, which usually resides in the kitchen. Inevitably, Jim’s often playing his game while Greta and I are making dinner, and I have to say, the most annoying thing about the game isn’t the violence or the sound effects — it’s the background music. We’re constantly asking him to turn the volume down so we don’t have to listen to that dull, repetitive music.

So don’t gamers find music annoying, too? I know when I’m indulging in my one guilty pleasure — computer golf — the room must be absolutely silent. Music is the worst, because rather than hitting the ball according to the rhythm of the swing, I tend to lapse into the rhythm of the music, and instead of heading straight down the fairway on the Chateau Whistler course, my ball ends up careening off course into a field of neck-high nettles, or ricocheting off a pine tree and into a pristine mountain brook.

Indeed, in at least one instance (a racing game studied by M. Yamada in 2001), researchers found a negative correlation between certain types of music and performance on the game. But in both this case and my anecdotal example of playing video golf, we’re talking about music that’s not specifically designed to accompany a game.

A recent study by Scott Lipscomb and Sean Zehnder addresses that issue. They had volunteers play three different segments from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, either with or without the music that was composed by Howard Shore to accompany the game. A third group listened to the music alone. After each segment, they rated the game/music experience along 21 different dimensions. I’m not going to discuss all their results, but one set of responses was particularly interesting to me:


Ratings were made using a slider on the computer monitor, and then converted into a numerical scale ranging from 0 to 100. Here we see that the level of annoyance depends not only on whether the music was being played along with the game, but also on the particular segment of the game. Each game segment had different music, presumably designed to enhance the experience, but in the “Amon Hen” segment, players found the game more annoying with the music than without, while in the other two segments, the non-musical versions were more annoying. Curiously (and probably coincidentally), the annoyance ratings for the music alone were statistically indistinguishable from annoyance ratings for game played without music.

Overall, many of the user ratings varied significantly depending on whether music was played:


“Simple” ratings decreased from the “game without music” condition to the “music only” condition to the “game with music” condition. Meanwhile, across the same conditions, “colorful” ratings increased. Clearly the impact of music on the gaming experience is complex.

Perhaps the most interesting result of this experiment had to do with the gender of participants. Here are the ratings for “dangerous” charted by gender:


Males rated the game as significantly less “dangerous” when music was not being played compared to when music was played, but women found it equally dangerous in either case. So at least along this dimension, music matters much more for men than for women.

What are your experiences with music and video games? Do they match the results of this study? Let us know in the comments.

Lipscomb, S.D., & Zehnder, S.M. (2004). Immersion in the virtual environment: The effect of a musical score on the video gaming experience.


  1. #1 Brian J. Geiger
    February 1, 2006

    I know this isn’t important to the main point, but I thought it would be worth mentioning that the music in World of Warcraft can be controlled independently of the the rest of the computer volume, so you can mute it without affecting the rest of the computer sound.

    As to the bulk of the article, it’s been my experience that the quality of the music as well as the style of game are important factors, as you would imagine. Some games can use music as a cur for what’s happening in the game (Tetris), some games, of course, require music. Some games would just seem strange without music because of how well they did it (Wipeout 2).

    Definitely a good topic for a series of studies, though.

  2. #2 Stephen Downes
    February 1, 2006

    I can’t speak about the golf game, but in my experience the music is often reflective of gameplay and can provide important audio cues to the player.

  3. #3 Adam Collado
    February 1, 2006

    Usually the music in most games can be quite annoying or disturbing when listened to by itself. I have also a much better experienced with videogames due to its accompanying music and vice versa. I also think that genre as well as the gameplay in general may also play apart in the experience as well. I would like to see a study like this but based on several games instead of one, as I think the results may be different.

  4. #4 Helen
    February 2, 2006

    Curiously (and probably coincidentally), the annoyance ratings for the music alone were statistically indistinguishable from annoyance ratings for game played without music.

    I would interpret this chart differently, actually: showing part 1, part 2, and parts 1+2. One part is game, one part is music, and the parts on their own are indistinguishable on an annoyance scale.

    Things are different with the total (1+2). In two segments, the two parts (game and music) fit together and the whole is better than the some of the parts.
    In the third segment, the two parts DON’T fit together, which makes the combination annoying. Or it could be too much noise drowning the signal, or just information overload.

  5. #5 Helen
    February 2, 2006

    PS: The first paragraph of my post was supposed to be marked as a quote; I guess that all got eaten by the HTML parsing monster behind this blog…

  6. #6 Dave Munger
    February 2, 2006

    I like your interpretation of the “annoying” data; it has the benefit of appearing to correspond to all the anecdotal evidence: music not designed for a game hampers; video game music on its own is annoying.

    Also, I fixed the quote. You need to use the <blockquote> tag; just <quote> won’t work.

  7. #7 Josiah
    February 7, 2006

    I do everything with music: read, study, walk, sometimes sleep. For me, most video game music gets very annoying. My favorite games are games that let you turn off the music without turning off the sound effects or voices. Then I can play my own music along with it.

    Games where the voice and effects are inseperable from the BGM, I usually bear with because the A/V response is crucially interlinked, however I find myself unable to play these games for long periods of time without needing a break.

  8. #8 Neil H.
    February 8, 2006

    Curiously, there’s actually a subculture (of which I am a part) which actually enjoys listening to video game music, and stores which specialize in it. There have even been a number of orchestral game music concerts in Japan and the US.

    When I’m sitting in the lab I’ll often be listening to video game music on my iPod, particularly music from games like Katamari Damacy or fan-made remixes. It might be a matter of me having grown up on this stuff. Actually, I think video game music was what got me interested in other types of music in the first place.

  9. #9 Ross Andrus
    March 12, 2006

    This is a very interesting study, but I’d like to see a more scientific approach from the musical side. The study purports that “Each game segment had different music, presumably designed to enhance the experience,” but from a compositional standpoint, that tells very little about the nature or cause of the listeners’ emotional responses. There might be covariation between the experimental variables, but to find any true correllation would require more attention to the mechanics of the music.

    For example, players would probably be highly annoyed by a Brahms symphony in the background while trying to interact with the game. The symphony contains all the necessary drama for a full, emotional experience, and the complexity of the instrumentation and harmonic framework would almost certainly monopolize the players attention. On the other hand, no music at all would nullify the emotional setting and fail to provide any emphasis on the player’s actions. It’s a delicate balancing act that can have a vast impact on the total experience. Therefore, I’d argue that the structure of the music itself and how it relates to the interactive gameplay should be considered as variables in order to yield any significant or useful statistics for composers and sound desingers to create more effective music.

  10. #10 caleb carlson
    May 23, 2006

    Does music affect the way you believe?

    Does music affect the way that you act?

  11. #11 Dave Munger
    May 23, 2006

    Caleb: Sure. What’s your point?

  12. #12 Dave Munger
    October 20, 2007

    Comments closed on this post due to spam. Sorry!

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