A Simple (and Ironic) Strategy to Reduce Audition-Day Restlessness

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden often urged his players to “be quick – but don’t hurry.”

Indeed, whether it’s a last-second three pointer, passing shot in tennis, or a tricky shift, there’s something about rushing that tends to mess with the execution of motor skills. We get tight, fluidity and ease go out the window, the timing and rhythm gets off, and we force things instead of letting them happen.

For me, the frantic-ness would begin as soon as I woke up on the morning of an audition. Instead of easing myself out of bed, I’d feel those tiny little butterflies starting to flutter in my stomach, and hop out with more urgency. I’d brush my teeth, shower, eat breakfast, and get changed all while moving a little faster than normal, feeling a bit on edge.

Olympic diving coach Jeff Huber once spoke of the tendency for some divers to rush through parts of their competition day routine in exactly that way. Hurrying from the hotel to the pool. Rushing through warmups, and doing everything a little faster, “with tense muscles, stiff movements, and taut facial expressions.” He cautioned that this rushed feeling can start bleeding into every aspect of the day – and most crucially, disrupt the dives themselves.

And he was totally right. I’d rush out on stage. Tune as fast as I could. And ultimately, start playing before I was really ready. Which would result in a sense of agitated breathlessness throughout, not to mention missed shifts and less than awesome intonation.

Of course, it’s hard to slow down and put our mind and body at ease, when we’re revved up like this.

So what does the research say? Is there something we can do to slow our engine down and avoid getting quite so worked up on the day of an audition?

Wherefore Muzak?

Most stores and restaurants have music playing in the background. Which we often don’t even really notice, but is intended to put us in a better mood and get us to hopefully buy more stuff. However, for years, nobody actually tested this idea; it was simply assumed.

Then Ronald Milliman came along and did a study to see if music could actually affect the behavior of real shoppers at a grocery store.

For 9 weeks, they systematically changed the background music in a medium-sized grocery store located in the southwestern US. On a third of the days, they played no music at all. On another third, they played slow music (defined as music 72bpm or slower). And on the other days, they played fast music (94bpm or faster).

What effect did music have?

Milliman was curious about two things. Would the music change how quickly or slowly shoppers walked through the store? And would this affect sales in some way?

By measuring the time it took for customers to pass between designated points in the store, Milliman found that on no-music days, customers would pass between the designated points in 119.86 seconds. On slow-music days, it would take them 127.53 seconds (an additional ~8 seconds). And on fast-music days, they’d pass between the points in only 108.93 seconds (~11 seconds faster).

The 8-11 second difference between slow or fast and no-music days wasn’t statistically significant, but the ~19 second difference between slow-music and fast-music days absolutely was.

Which in turn seemed to have a significant impact on sales.

On the fast-music days, when customers were zipping through the store, average sales was $12,112.85. And on slow-music days when shoppers were moseying their way around (and presumably took more time to notice other things they needed or wanted), average sales jumped to $16,740.23.

A 38% increase in sales, just by changing the tempo of the music, and influencing the pace of their movements!

What about restaurants?

A few years later, Milliman tried this experiment in a restaurant setting. Since restaurants can serve more customers if diners finish their meals faster, he was curious to see how the tempo of background music might affect dining speed.

Would they stay longer, with slow background music? And leave sooner, with fast music?

Yep, they would indeed.

When slow music was playing, an average of 56 minutes elapsed from the time a party was seated, to the time they left. When fast music was playing, that number dropped to 45 minutes.

So it seems that background music can have a significant effect on the speed of our movements, largely out of conscious awareness. But can music affect our emotional state as well?

And hospitals?

More recently, a team of Taiwanese researchers did a study to see what sort of effect music would have on the anxiety of 161 patients who were about to undergo surgery.

About 30 minutes before surgery was to begin, each patient was escorted into a waiting room, given a quick anxiety assessment, and hooked up to a heart rate monitor.

Ten minutes into their wait, about half of the patients were given an MP3 player, headphones, and a selection of music to choose from (the music group). All musical selections were “light” folk or pop in the 60-80bpm range.

The other half of the patients simply continued to sit and wait (the quiet rest group).

After 10 minutes of listening (or sitting quietly), participants retook the anxiety assessment, and had their heart rate checked once again.

The impact on anxiety

As you probably already guessed, listening to music had a soothing effect on patients’ anxiety. Their anxiety dropped from an average of 3.5 (where 0=calm, 10=very anxious) to 2.8.

And while the quiet rest group’s heart rate stayed the same throughout the waiting period, the music group’s heart rate actually slowed down.


The idea of using music to combat anxiety about an upcoming music performance seems a little ironic.

But in much the same way that athletes use music to calm down or get pumped up, it seems that we may be able to slow our pace down or better regulate our internal “engines” by adding the right background music to our audition day.

Take action

So on the day of an audition, make it a point to focus on moving through the day with ease, as if you have all the time in the world. Take a few minutes to wake up, and ease out of bed. Take your time getting through your morning routine. Enjoy a leisurely breakfast. Take your time getting to the audition site. Walk slowly, don’t rush to get across the street just before the light changes. Get your instrument unpacked as if it were a meditative ritual. Don’t allow anyone to rush you or make you hurry.

And to help, put together a soundtrack for your morning. A playlist of music with a slower bpm that helps you naturally settle into a slower rhythm for the day. Until, of course, it’s time to get revved up, excited, and switch to a soundtrack that helps you get ready to go on stage totally energized and awesome (but not frantic and flustered).

Additional resources

I’m not sure I agree with all of their bpm ratings, but here are some lists of songs at specific bpm’s:

Songs @60bpm  |  @70bpm  |  @160bpm

And a short, but interesting TED talk on the different ways sound (and music) affects us:

Julian Treasure on The 4 Ways Sound Affects Us

And if you’re really looking to procrastinate today, the idea for this post came from a podcast episode on why it is that there seems to be music everywhere…except public restrooms:

Time to Take Back the Toilet @Freakonomics Radio

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2 Responses

  1. Hi Dr. Kageyama,

    Thanks for the post and for bringing these studies together. Is there research on how other features of the music affect might make a difference? I’m asking because it’s intuitively a bad idea to play a recording of the part of a slow piece from which comes an excerpt for your audition if the recording does something contrary to the way you prepared it. Or maybe it’s better not to listen to your own pieces at all…or is the opposite true? Is it better to stay away from classical music altogether, or perhaps anything other than the styles we’re about to play? (just to provide an example of what I mean by “other features”)


    1. Hi Elliot,

      I haven’t looked into it, but I suspect there is other research out there on the impact of other features of music on behavior/mood (like volume, for instance).

      As far as whether to listen to recordings of excerpts or not, I think it depends on the timing. For me, excerpts are probably not the way I’d want to start the morning, and I may not want to spend most of the day hearing the same excerpts over and over either. There may be a specific window of time when you’d want to listen to excerpts, or the full orchestral part of that section, or maybe even your own best takes of the excerpt. But during the rest of the day it may be best to use music as a tool to help you regulate your mood or energy, whether that means listening to other classical rep you like, and reminds you of why you wanted to be a musician in the first place, or rock/jazz/pop/etc. that you enjoy.

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