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It’s more than a feeling. The power of music in qual research.

This piece was featured on Greenbook.

“Music can name the un-nameable and communicate the unknowable.” – Leonard Bernstein

What depth of emotion and meaning can music access that might be otherwise inaccessible? How can music offer a kind of language that resonates at a different register than words? Why should the power and beauty of music be a key tool in qual research? 

In traditional qual, respondents are most often asked to respond in words. The result is an archive of textual expression that can certainly constitute richness and produce illuminating insights. But what are the limits of this kind of expression? We find that not all people are best suited to expressing themselves in words. It can be difficult to find the right words. For those for whom words don’t come easily, there’s a self-consciousness in formulating thoughts into words that capture the fuller meaning of what people are trying to express. There can be an incompleteness, a surface-level depth that’s difficult to break through. For many, they need a different access point, a different form of expression – one rooted more firmly in the emotional depth of human experience and less in the cognitive processing required to articulate their feelings in words. “Music,” Keith Richards says, “is a language that doesn’t speak in particular words. It speaks in emotions.”

In musical expression, the tone, the melody, the lyrics, and the visceral response music evokes captures a different side of people. Methodologically, asking respondents to share links to YouTube songs, for instance, adds additional layers of depth when the song is experienced alongside its music video. The dance, choreography, and imagery that the musician chooses enrich the music itself, as it incorporates the visual and electrifying power of dance and the movement of the body. Music becomes a multi-layered experience – one that connects people to the artists, to the brands, products, categories, or experiences that are the topics of our studies, and most of all to people’s most intimate, inner selves. 

Music can bring up associations from the past that inform not only what people feel but also reminders of the specific life experiences that have shaped those feelings. Listening to music can uncover the secrets of the subconscious. It can call up feelings we didn’t know we had. It can give language in mixed media forms to feelings we couldn’t otherwise express. It can call up the whole human, not just the intellectual, thinking mind. As Corita Kent says: “That’s why people listen to music or look at paintings. To get in touch with that wholeness.” In capturing the emotional, the cognitive, and even the spiritual, music invites respondents to show up with their whole selves, and this is where the magic happens. 

But how do we leverage the beauty and meaning of music to uncover this wholeness? We offer three tips for integrating music in meaningful ways into qual research. 

  1. Invite respondents into soundtracking. We know that “play” is a powerful tool for self-expression that frees respondents from the constraints of being serious, intellectually-minded adults. People love and are familiar with the power of soundtracking an experience or story. They know what it feels like to listen to a song that is meant to move and inspire them to understand the more substantive connections that come from music. Invite respondents to “soundtrack” a brand, product, category, or experience and you put the reins of creativity into their hands, trusting them to identify deeper connections in music, sound, and experience. 
  2. Encourage complex and even contradictory emotional expressions. We all know that we have mixed and sometimes contradictory feelings about a topic, brand, or category. If we start and stop by asking respondents questions like “How does this brand make you feel?”, without probing for more substance and contradiction, we risk getting answers like “happy” or “excited,” foreclosing the possibilities for a much deeper and more nuanced expression of their feelings. Ask respondents to choose a song that captures the many layers of feeling that a brand, category, or product evokes, urging them to reflect not just on the first emotional association but also the ones that come after it. Trust them to identify both consciously and subconsciously the richness of their emotional connections and ways of knowing.
  3. Create a textual follow-up question. Because music accesses the subconscious so effectively, a large part of the analysis of a music-based question is done by the qual researcher as we try to excavate the different emotional elements of the chosen song and understand why a respondent chose the song they did. But in something as seemingly simple as choosing a song, respondents (even those whose most natural form of expression isn’t words) become equipped to reflect on their own experience in more sophisticated ways. Setting up a prompt for a song, and following it with a request for their own analysis creates a foundation for respondents to better understand their emotions and associations with a brand, category, product, or experience and then give it words of their own. It gives them a powerful jumping off point to better analyze their own experience when the power of music is the trigger.

In what ways do you see the heart and whole human behind musical expression? How might you imagine engaging your own connection to and experience of music to prompt empathetic realness in asking people to do the same?