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Sonic Science: Understanding your brain on sound

New research reveals that Spotify digital audio is more engaging than radio, TV, and social media

Sonic Science: Understanding your brain on sound

There’s something special about sound. Sometimes, it feels like magic that can’t be explained: the wonder of hearing a favorite song for the first time, the gripping climax of a riveting podcast, the hypnotic hum of white noise. But the unique power of sound actually can be explained—with science, of course.

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We’ve partnered with the research team at Neuro-Insight, a leading firm in the field of cognitive research, to break down why sound—specifically, digital audio—has such a distinct impact. What we found, through both survey data and Neuro-Insight’s Steady State Topography technology that measures brain activity in real-time, is that digital audio is uniquely powerful thanks to its interactivity and personalization.

HOW SOUND WORKS: The MEDIUM HAS A DISTINCT NEUROLOGICAL IMPACT

Let’s take a step back to understand how sound works. After it travels from our ears into our auditory cortex, different processing centers extract elements of the sound—the pitch, rhythm, timbre, and volume—then bring it all back together just 30 milliseconds later. Recent advances in neuroscience show us that sounds actually impact us through every key center of the brain—affecting the emotional, memory, and engagement centers alike.

To understand our cognitive processing of audio signals, Neuro-Insight uses four proprietary metrics: Engagement (the relatability and relevance of the ad), Emotional Intensity (the strength of the emotions tied to the ad), Long-Term Memory for Global Features (memories, feelings, and themes associated with the ad), and Long-Term Memory for Details (the specific message and details of the ad). Together, these metrics paint a full picture of our ability to retain information and how we connect emotion to those memories.

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THEATER OF THE MIND: DIGITAL AUDIO IS SIGNIFICANTLY MORE IMPACTFUL THAN RADIO

It’s clear that sounds impact the brain, but our research with Neuro-Insight found that some types have a stronger impact than others. Their technology showed that the listening experience for digital audio was significantly elevated across all metrics compared to radio—leading to higher memorability, engagement, and emotional intensity.

Neuro-Insight believes this boost is directly tied to digital audio’s inherent qualities—specifically, personalization and interactivity. Unlike traditional radio, digital audio lets people tailor what they’re hearing so it connects directly to their specific interests and the moment they’re in. The research found that this interactive ability to self-select content increases engagement, and it also fuels personalized experiences on digital audio platforms. As a result, people turn to music and podcasts throughout key moments of their daily lives, using audio to enhance their experiences. And in today’s media landscape, that’s important: 66% of participants said there’s too much visual stimulation, and that audio provides a nice escape from it.

LISTENING ON SPOTIFY TAKES THIS ENGAGEMENT TO THE NEXT LEVEL, WITH DEEPER PERSONALIZATION

In our research, we found that the power of digital audio is amplified even further on Spotify. When Neuro-Insight measured the brain activity of users listening to different types of audio, it was clear that Spotify provided the most engaging audio experience.

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Spotify’s extensive product features are built for interactivity and personalization, and Neuro-Insight attributes the boost in engagement metrics found in the research to these qualities. But it turns out, those qualities didn’t just lift Spotify above other audio formats. Neuro-Insight’s research found that the Spotify experience drove higher engagement than TV, digital video, and social media as well. That’s a testament to the power of audio: Spotify’s deeply personalized platform seems to create a more engaging experience than watching a TV show on the couch or passively scrolling through social feeds.

ALL EARS ON YOU: WHAT IT MEANS FOR BRANDS

In today’s crowded media landscape, advertisers are finding it increasingly difficult to break through. But through the Spotify Advertising experience, fusing the power of personalized audio and interactivity, advertisers have the chance to connect with their audience in a meaningful context while they’re deeply immersed in what they’re listening to.

Spotify’s impact on the brain, measured by Neuro-Insight, can result in a significant impact on Ad Memorability and Brand Impact alike. Our research showed that 93% of the brain’s engagement with the content transferred directly into ad engagement as the listener moved from their music and podcasts to the ad. As a result, the ads saw 19% higher Brand Impact on Spotify compared to all other media.

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For advertisers, that means there’s a huge opportunity to have all ears on you.

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About the author

FastCo Works is Fast Company's branded content studio. Advertisers commission us to consult on projects, as well as to create content and video on their behalf.

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