The Experience of Time As a Function of Musical Loudness and Gender of Listener

James J. Kellaris, University of Cincinnati
Moses B. Altsech, Pennsylvania State University
ABSTRACT - This study examines the influence of music and gender on the experience of time. Consumers experience waits and delays in many contexts. Environmental factors such as music may diminish (or augment) perceived time during these periods. An experiment found musical loudness to increase perceived duration of time passage among female listeners. A second dimension of temporal experience, perceived pace, was positively influenced by loudness irrespective of listener gender. Practical implications and directions for future research are discussed.
[ to cite ]:
James J. Kellaris and Moses B. Altsech (1992) ,"The Experience of Time As a Function of Musical Loudness and Gender of Listener", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 725-729.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 725-729


James J. Kellaris, University of Cincinnati

Moses B. Altsech, Pennsylvania State University


This study examines the influence of music and gender on the experience of time. Consumers experience waits and delays in many contexts. Environmental factors such as music may diminish (or augment) perceived time during these periods. An experiment found musical loudness to increase perceived duration of time passage among female listeners. A second dimension of temporal experience, perceived pace, was positively influenced by loudness irrespective of listener gender. Practical implications and directions for future research are discussed.


Consumers frequently experience waits and delays in checkout lines, bank teller lines, registration and voting lines, airports, restaurants, medical offices, and many other consumptive contexts. A recent advertisment for long distance telephone services illustrates the adverse effects of excessive "hold time" on customers placing orders by telephone. Since many consumers consider time a valuable personal resource (Jacoby, Szybillo, and Berning 1976; Hornik 1984; Bergadaa 1990), longer waits may lead to greater inconvenience, annoyance, and dissatisfaction. In extreme cases, sales may be lost when customers are kept waiting too long.

As a practical matter, marketers cannot always control actual waiting time. They can, however, manipulate factors in the stimulus environment which can influence consumers' perceptions of time passage during these periods. Environmental music is one such factor.

As the popular utterance suggests, time seems to fly when one is having fun. Thus, the presence of enjoyable music might be expected to diminish listeners' perceptions of time passage. The process by which music influences listeners' perceptions, however, may not be that simple. Music is not a "generic sonic mass" that operates through its mere presence or absence (Bruner 1990). It is composed of numerous variables, each of which, along with their interactions (Kellaris and Kent 1991), can influence cognitive outcomes (Dowling and Harwood 1986).

The perceived duration of a time interval "filled" with music should depend on the specific character of that music. The character of a piece of music is determined by the interplay of its stimulus properties with listener characteristics (Bruner 1990). Loudness is an important musical stimulus property. It is a basic characteristic of all forms of music, and it can be easily controlled by marketers. Gender is an important listener characteristic that may moderate the effects of musical properties on cognitive outcomes such as time perception. Previous research has found the sexes to differ in terms of hearing sensitivity (Corso 1963), cognitive processing of auditory stimuli (Kimura 1985), and preferences for stimulation levels (Kellaris and Rice, forthcoming). Although gender differences in music perception remain largely unexplored, we expect differences to emerge based on theory and research findings in audiology, brain physiology, cognitive psychology, and psychomusicology.

This study examines the effect of music on consumers' experience of time. Two aspects of temporal experience -- perceived duration of a time interval and perceived pace -- are examined. Based on theory drawn from diverse disciplines, gender is hypothesized to moderate the influence of music's loudness on perceived time passage such that louder music augments subjective time experience to a greater extent for female listeners. Perceived pace, the subjective speed with which a succession of events takes place, is also expected to be a function of music's loudness, with a similar moderating effect of gender.


Perceived Time

Time flies when you're having fun. On the other hand, a watched pot never boils. These expressions refer to the relationship between the events filling a time interval and its subjective duration. As William James (1890/1952) noted over a hundred years ago, "In general a time filled with varied and interesting experiences seems ... long as we look back ... empty time seems ... in retrospect short" (p. 408).

There are several models of psychological time that relate stimulus properties of events filling a time interval to the experience of duration (Levin and Zakay 1989; Block 1990). Although alternative models provide different explanations, they tend to make similar predictions concerning basic stimulus-response relationships. For example, when a time interval is filled with more events, more information, more complex, intense, or salient stimuli, the perceived duration of that interval is generally greater. Ornstein (1969) would explain this in terms of the amount of memory or "storage size" associated with the judged interval. Zakay (1989) might explain this in terms of attentional resources required to process the stimulus information. Greater allocation of attentional resources to processing nontemporal aspects of the stimulus reduces attentional allocation to the internal clock ("cognitive timer") assumed by his model. Fraisse (1984) emphasizes the role of change as a determinant of perceived duration. The greater the change (i.e., number of successive events that take place during a time interval), the greater the perceived duration of the interval. This type of inference is based on the simple heuristic "it must take longer for more things to happen."

In addition to perceived duration, consumers experience time in terms of subjective pace. A succession of events within a time interval, irrespective of the duration of that interval, can take place slowly or rapidly. Children learn to associate time, velocity of motion, and distance at a fairly early age (Piaget 1927/1969). It takes a certain amount of time for an object traveling at a given speed to move a fixed distance. Because a faster moving object travels a greater distance than a slower moving object during a fixed time interval, the faster moving object is perceived as moving for a longer time -- even when the faster and slower moving objects start and stop at the same time (Levin and Zakay 1989). By analogy, the velocity or pace of sounds may be perceived in the same way as visual objects. Auditory stimuli which "move" at higher levels of perceived activity should be perceived as longer in duration.

Based on these models, we can predict effects of musical stimulus properties on the experience of time. For example, music which is louder, more salient, or more complex should be perceived as longer in duration and faster in pace. Among musical stimulus factors that affect the experience of time, loudness is probably the simplest to manipulate. Marketers can easily control the volume of atmospheric music in retail environments, or the level of "hold music" on telephone answering systems.

Moderating Effect of Gender

As previously noted, reactions to music are not determined solely by the objective properties of sound. Listener characteristics influence the subjective perception of music. For example, one study found musical preferences to vary by age of listener (Holbrook and Schindler 1989). Many studies have found extent of musical training to influence reactions to music (Dowling and Harwood 1986). We believe that gender may also moderate the impact of music on listeners. There are several reasons for anticipating this.

First, men and women differ in terms of hearing sensitivity. College-aged females generally have more acute hearing, particularly in the higher frequency range (i.e., 4000 Hz and above), than do college-aged males (Corso 1963). This not only means that a given sound may seem louder to females, but, because high frequency overtones determine the timbre or "tone color" of a pitch (Dowling and Harwood 1986), musical sounds may be perceived more vividly by females. As a result females may be more sensitive to music in general, and particularly to effects stemming from sound intensity.

Second, brain physiology research has documented sex differences in auditory information processing (Kimura 1985). Musical information tends to be processed predominantly in the right hemisphere of the human brain. For many processing tasks, including the processing of nonverbal information, females exhibit less lateralized encephalographic activity. If one assumes this to indicate the involvement of more cognitive resources in nonverbal auditory processing among females, females may be more prone to cognitive effects of musical stimuli.

Third, there is limited anecdotal and empirical evidence that suggests college-aged males and females may prefer different levels of auditory stimulation. Anecdotally, it appears that the majority of listeners who prefer loud "Heavy Metal" music tend to be young males. An empirical study by Kellaris and Rice (forthcoming) found a negative effect of musical amplitude on the affective evaluations of women. Males' affective evaluations were statistically invariant across loudness conditions, but showed a slight positive increase as loudness increased. Given this finding, we might expect loudness to augment duration perceptions among females. Time should seem to "drag" when the level of stimulation induces a decrement in positive affect. (See Loftus et al. (1987) for further discussion of differential effects of stimulation level on time estimates of males and females.)

Fourth, Block (1990) proposed that "charateristics of the time experiencer" interact with the "contents of a time period" to influence time-related judgments. Gender is among the important characteristics of the time experiencer in Block's conceptual model. Although Block's model does not explicitly state how gender is expected to interact with contents of a time interval, theory and findings from audiology, brain physiology, and psychomusicology provide a sufficient basis for prediction.


Based on our review, we anticipate the following effects of music on temporal experience. First, since louder music confronts listeners with more sensory information and evokes greater involuntary attention which distracts from time processing, we expect the loudness of music to augment the perception of time passage for most listeners. Specifically:

H1: Louder music will be perceived as longer in duration.

Second, we expect gender to moderate the effect of loudness on time perception. Given differences in hearing sensitivities, cognitive processing, and stimulation level preferences, females should be more prone to the influence of loudness on perceived time passage. Stated formally:

H2: The effect of music's loudness on perceived duration will be significantly more positive for female listeners.

Third, we expect loudness to affect perceived pace of the stimuli filling a time interval. Loudness, like the brightness of a light, is a physical property of sound closely associated with stimulus intensity. Based on the relationship between stimulus intensity and perceived activity (Anand and Holbrook 1986), one might anticipate louder, more intense stimuli to produce the illusion of faster pace. Furthermore, the internal arousal state induced by higher levels of stimulation should reinforce this effect (Smith and Curnow 1966). Thus:

H3: The loudness of music will have a positive effect on perceived pace.

Finally, as with perceived duration, the effect of loudness on perceived pace may also be moderated by gender for similar reasons.

H4: The effect of music's loudness on perceived pace will be significantly more positive for female listeners.



We tested our hypotheses in a 2 X 2 factorial experiment using a between-Ss design. Treatments included two levels of musical loudness (soft = 60 dB, loud = 90 dB) and gender of listener. The dependent variables were retrospective duration estimates and perceived pace. Ss were randomly assigned to treatment conditions and processed in small groups. They listened to the stimulus music over a loudspeaker, then filled out a brief questionnaire.


One hundred eight (n = 108) undergraduate students (54 males, 54 females) participated in the study. Course credit was offered as an incentive. Ss were naive to the study's purpose. Ages ranged from 20 to 27 years, with a median age of 21.


The stimulus music was an original light pop-rock style composition produced in a digital sound studio at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music. The instrumental piece was 180 seconds in duration. It was scored for soprano sax, trumpets, strings, electric bass, and drums, and recorded at the moderately fast tempo of 120 BPM. The composition was produced using sequencer software and digitally sampled sounds as per Kellaris and Kent (1991). Bruner (1990) provides a brief, nontechnical explanation of this technology.

To manipulate loudness, volume levels were preset on the amplifiers that powered speakers in the listening rooms. Using a decibel meter (placed at room center), volume levels were preset to 60 and 90 dB to represent soft and loud conditions respectively. The 60 dB level is slightly softer than normal conversation, and typical of "background" music heard in retail environments. The 90 dB level is typical of "foreground" music. A post-test manipulation check verified the subjective difference between these volume levels on a seven-point loudness scale (1 = soft, 7 = loud). The 60 dB treatment produced a mean rating of 3.68 and the 90 dB treatment a mean rating of 5.60 (t = 9.73; p < .001).


Ss were randomly assigned to treatment groups upon arrival at a behavioral lab. An equal number of males and females was assigned to each loudness condition. Groups were directed to separate sound-proof listening rooms for concurrent processing. There were no more than eight Ss in any given room during each session. They were instructed not to talk, and told to leave the questionnaire face down until the music stopped playing. Unobtrusive observation of the Ss during the procedure found no vio-lations of these instructions. After the music stopped, Ss completed the questionnaire. Ss anticipated "opinion questions" about the music they heard, but did not anticipate duration estimate or perceived pace items.


The dependent measures included a duration estimate item and a perceived pace scale. The duration item asked respondents to "please estimate how long the music lasted." Blank spaces labeled "____ minutes and ____ seconds" were preceded by the prompt "I estimate the music I heard lasted for about:" This standard measure has been used by many psychological time researchers (Fraisse 1984; Hornik 1984; Zakay 1990). The pace measure was a single-item seven-point semantic differential scale with end points labeled "slow" (1) and "fast" (7), preceded by the prompt "The music I heard was:" This item was taken from Kellaris and Kent (1991).

Both dependent measures were embedded among dummy items relating to the music. The duration measure preceded the pace scale. The filler items used the same response formats as the dependent variables, including sentence completion (e.g. "A good name for this piece of music might be ____"), and seven-point semantic differential scales (e.g. "Harmonious/Dissonant").

The questionnaire also included the previously described manipulation check item, and items relating to gender, age, musical preferences, and training.


Perceived Duration

Retrospective duration estimates of the three minute musical piece ranged widely, from thirty-five seconds to over seven minutes. The median estimate was exactly three minutes (180.00 seconds). This is consistent with previous research which found duration estimates to vary widely about an accurate central tendency (Fraisse 1984). Whereas females tended to underestimate actual time by about fifteen seconds (X = 165.41), males overestimated actual time by the same margin (X = 195.61).

ANOVA results support Hypothesis 1. There is a significant main effect of loudness on perceived duration (F = 3.90, d.f. = 107, p = .05), although the magnitude of the effect is fairly small (omega squared = .02). The effect is in the expected direction. Louder music was generally perceived as longer in duration (X = 193.17) relative to softer music (X = 167.85).

Hypothesis 2 was also supported. There is a significant two-way interaction of loudness with gender on perceived duration (F = 8.26, p < .005). The magnitude of this effect is .06 (omega squared). See Figure for illustration.



The loudness of the music has a positive effect on the duration estimates of females (t = 3.23, p < .002). Loudness has a slight decremental effect on males' time perceptions, although this is not statistically significant (t = -.67, n.s.). While the time estimates of males and females differ significantly under the soft music condition (t = 3.97, p < .001), they converge under the loud music condition (t = -.26, n.s.).

Perceived Pace

Pace ratings ranged from three to seven on the seven-point scale, with a mean rating of 5.41. Females tended to perceive the pace as slightly faster (X = 5.52) relative to male listeners (X = 5.30), although this was not a statistically significant difference.

Hypothesis 3 was supported. There is a significant main effect of loudness on perceived pace (F = 6.19, p < .014), with louder music perceived as faster (X = 5.61) than softer music (X = 5.20). The magnitude of this effect is .045 (omega squared).

Hypothesis 4 was not supported. Although there is a slightly sharper increase in perceived pace across loudness conditions among females (Xsoft = 5.22; Xloud = 5.81) than among males (Xsoft = 5.19; Xloud = 5.41), this effect is not statistically significant (F = 1.28, n.s.).


This study examined the influence of music's loudness and gender of listener on two aspects of temporal experience. Experimental findings generally supported our hypotheses. Louder music augmented both perceived duration of a time interval and perceived pace of the stimulus event. Gender had a moderating influence in that the effect of loudness on perceived duration was significantly more positive among females.

These findings suggest that consumers' time perceptions may be influenced by manipulating atmospheric features such as music. This has several practical implications. For example, marketers may be able to diminish the perception of time passage while customers are in checkout lines or waiting areas by making appropriate adjustments in the volume of environmental music. Given the main effect of loudness on perceived pace, it may be possible to use music to mitigate consumers' feelings of being "rushed" in certain situations, such as dining at restaurants.

Contrary to our expectations, gender did not moderate the influence of loudness on perceived pace. The expected effect might emerge over a wider range of loudness than that used in the present experiment; however, we believe our loudness levels represent what consumers typically encounter in the world outside the behavioral lab. If music needs to be louder than 90 dB for loudness to interact with gender, this interaction would have little practical relevance for marketing applications.

It should be recognized that the generality of these findings is constrained by several limitations. Each of these limitations suggests a possible direction for future research. First, our study examined listeners' experience of duration in retrospect. Several authors have mentioned possible differences between the experience of duration in passing versus the rememberance of a time interval (e.g. Block 1990). Our retrospective measure of perceived time captures the rememberance of a time interval, not the "psychological present" as it occurred. While both aspects of temporal experience may influence consumptive outcomes (e.g. satisfaction with a store), we expect consumers' retrospective judgments to have a greater influence in the long run.

Second, the forced exposure condition may have resulted in more attentive listening than would be typical in retail environments. It is not certain how (if at all) the exposure condition might have influenced the results; however, to test the generality of our findings, the study should be replicated using a more passive exposure to the stimulus music.

Third, an additional limitation may stem from the procedure. The ambiguous instructions may have encouraged subjects to evaluate the music during its presentation. (Recall that Ss were told to listen to the music without being told the specific purpose.) Since "bad" music may seem to play forever and "good" music may seem to end too soon, an "evaluative mind set" could have contributed to temporal effects of the music.

Fourth, this study assumes a link between temporal experience and consumptive outcomes (e.g. satisfaction) but does not establish such a link empirically. This task must also be commended to future research.

In conclusion, evidence from this study suggests that consumers' perceptions of time can be influenced by music. Both the retrospective duration and perceived pace dimensions of temporal experience were augmented by increasing the loudness of music. Females were more sensitive to the effects of music's loudness on perceptions of time passage. Given the present findings, the effects of other musical properties, other listener characteristics, and other types of atmospheric variables should be explored in future research.


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