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Does the Music in Casinos Make Players Risk More?

| April 3, 2021 9:00 am PDT

Back in 2014, a group of Norwegian psychosocial scientists (yes, that is an actual job title, at least in Norway) decided to find out whether background music in casinos affected gamblers, and if so, how, exactly. 

They first designed a computer card gambling game to be played by test subjects while each was wearing headphones playing various types of music. 

The study was tiny, its 101 test subjects comprising 72 female and 29 male psychology undergraduates at the University of Bergen in Norway. This is arguably one of the least likely groups at the top of anyone’s list as representative of casino patrons.

Oh, I forgot to mention that while the range of ages in this group of test subjects was 18 to 29, the mean age for the group was 21, so the test was actually very heavily weighted toward the neonatal side of the college cohort.

GIGO – The New Frontier 

If you’ve been following along, you probably already think that the answer to the question “What did they conclude?” is “Nothing of importance.”

You would be wrong.

The psychosocial scientists concluded that “both low-tempo and high-tempo music can be associated with more risky gambling behavior[…]” 

Interestingly, none of the 101 test subjects played the game with no music at all.

Now, non-psychosocial scientists might think that the absence of such a control group would mean that the only real knowledge to be gained from the test as administered would be that people are able to concentrate on playing a computer game despite background noise.

That’s what you and I would probably conclude, which probably explains why neither of us has been invited to join the psychosocial scientist club.

In any case, our intrepid band of psychosocial scientists believe they discovered a subtle but certain link between music and increased gambling. Slower tempo music encouraged test subjects to gamble for longer periods of time, while faster-tempo music encouraged faster reaction times, and hence, caused more bets to be made in a shorter period of time.

Apparently, there’s a big difference between losing your entire bankroll in two hours and losing your entire bankroll in 90 minutes. And don’t say “half an hour”, because that is so beneath you.

One begins to wonder how many Norwegian tax kroner were spent in order to uncover these completely unsurprising factoids.

Incidentally, The Norwegian report notes that as early as 1912, proto-psychosocial scientists were warning of the confluence of music and slot machines.  

That year, John Philip Quinn’s Gambling and Gaming Devices was published. Its title page describes the book as “[b]eing a complete systematic educational exposition designed to instruct the youth of the world to avoid all forms of gambling.” 

The 2014 Norwegian study uses a pull-quote from Quinn’s screed to illustrate the century of concern about the connection between music and gambling.

The quote is mismatched and unrelated to background music while gambling, but at this point, who cares? They’re rolling.

The Devil Music Made Me Do It

Aside from that underwhelming Norwegian experiment back in 2014, little has been proven about background music that might be useful to casinos. But if you’ve been to a casino lately, they all have music playing – just low enough to be ignorable (on a conscious level, at least). 

Personal observation suggests that the music playing in the background tends to match the casino’s demographic. If the demo is 40+, you’ll hear Abba, Madonna, Frank Sinatra, maybe even a current country hit, as well.

As the day progresses into the evening and then into the night, that music often changes to include currently popular artists and songs. The tempo does seem to increase as the shadows grow longer.

Of course, the mix may be more heavily modern hits at casinos like the Cosmopolitan, which unapologetically chases the younger gambler.

Some of the locals-friendly casinos in Vegas like the M Resort and most of the Station properties tend to offer older, more standard tunes, at least during the day. At night the mix tends toward – you guessed it – currently popular artists and songs.

You can conduct your own experiment. Next time you’re at your favorite casino for an extended period of time, stop every now and then and note the music playing and the general age group of the people around you.

Chances are good that the faster and more modern the music is, the younger the crowd around you will be.

That is not to say casinos don’t spend real money on playlists.

In fact, depending on the size of the casino, they may have multiple playlists covering various zones, with each playlist tailored to the specific demographics of that zone at that time of day. But what is playing in the background is always going to be a mild mood influencer, not a sleeper agent activation code.

More simply put: Nobody is going to bet it all on red simply because “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” was playing faintly in the background.

They might feel the urge to shoot their cuffs and order a vodka martini “shaken, not stirred”, however.

What Background Music Accomplishes

Younger people tend to see the casino experience as something of a party, and nobody wants to leave the party. If they spend an entire paycheck learning how to lay odds at the craps table, they know there’ll be another paycheck on their desk at the end of the following week.

On the other hand, older folks are typically enjoying some carefully budgeted leisure time. The music played for both of these two demographics is more a reaction to their existing preferences than it is a directed attempt to alter their gambling habits.

You don’t need a team of Norwegian psychosocial scientists to prove that background music can influence mood. Upbeat music, particularly songs you love, are going to have a positive effect on your mood.

The problem for casinos is, like the sense of smell (which I examined a while back), the sense of hearing is a very personal response. Particularly in relation to background music.

A particular song may be evocative (to you) of that warm summer evening you first discovered the difference between cats and dogs. For someone else, however, it may be the song an ex overplayed until they were forced to run into the street, never to return.

So casinos must tread a fine line with their selection of background music. It must evoke positive emotions like happiness, perhaps even feelings of comfort, safety, and well-being in the largest majority of prospective patrons possible.

It might keep the gamblers in their seats for one more hand, or it might keep them slapping that PLAY button as though they could somehow break the world land speed record in Bonneville.

And that helps tip the scales for the house advantage, because the chances that a winning streak will end increase dramatically the longer and/or more often you place bets.

In Cyberspace, No One Can Hear You Sing

Like fragrance, background music is virtually nonexistent at online casinos. For a wide variety of reasons, but mostly because people play mobile casino apps in a very disparate range of locations and circumstances, and noise of any kind might not be welcome. 

Office managers, for instance, tend to frown on singing along with ZZ Top’s cover of “Viva Las Vegas” as you play a virtual slot machine on your phone inside your cubicle. And don’t imagine the restroom is a safe place for such gambling sing-alongs. It is not. Don’t ask me how I know.

Whether your gambling is confined to home versions of slot classics or once a quarter romps on Fremont Street or the Las Vegas Strip, you can circumvent nefarious casino background music entirely by devising your very own gambling playlist.

Apple, Amazon, Spotify, even Google Play, offer music streaming services that allow you to build lists of your favorite music.

Some of these streaming services even feature pre-built playlists that recreate the background music of actual brick-and-mortar casinos, while others have playlists that are more an homage to Vegas-themed music.

And if the idea of providing your own background music appeals to you, consider test-driving your playlist during a visit to one of our recommended online casinos.

They’re safe, they’re fun, and most importantly, they are BYOBM (Bring Your Own Background Music).

Good luck!

J.W. Paine
J.W. Paine

J.W. Paine is one of the most experienced writers at GamblingSites.com. He's written for television and the printed media, and is a published novelist (as Tom Elliott).

Paine loves writing about Las Vegas nearly as much he loves living here. An experienced gambler, he's especially familiar with thoroughbred horseracing, poker, blackjack, and slots.

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