More Than a Feeling: an Exploration Into the Self-Symbolic Consumption of Music

ABSTRACT - This paper outlines an exploratory study into the self-symbolic consumption of music in social situations. A series of personal and group interviews were used to investigate a number of issues regarding the decisions made during this consumption process. Findings indicate that music is used to symbolise the consumer’s self-concept in social situations, and that this process is influenced by situational and self-concept variables. Propositions related to these findings have been developed, upon which further research can be based.


Gretchen Larsen, Rob Lawson, and Sarah Todd (2001) ,"More Than a Feeling: an Exploration Into the Self-Symbolic Consumption of Music", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, eds. Andrea Groeppel-Klien and Frank-Rudolf Esch, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 124-129.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 2001      Pages 124-129


Gretchen Larsen, University of Otago, New Zealand

Rob Lawson, University of Otago, New Zealand

Sarah Todd, University of Otago, New Zealand


This paper outlines an exploratory study into the self-symbolic consumption of music in social situations. A series of personal and group interviews were used to investigate a number of issues regarding the decisions made during this consumption process. Findings indicate that music is used to symbolise the consumer’s self-concept in social situations, and that this process is influenced by situational and self-concept variables. Propositions related to these findings have been developed, upon which further research can be based.


People listen to, or consume, music in many different ways and for many different reasons. Music is a pervasive part of everyday life for most consumers, we hear it in numerous situations from walking down the street, eating a meal, watching television and shopping in retail outlets. In fact Merriam (1964) said of music that "there is probably no other human cultural activity which is so all pervasive and which reaches into, shapes and often controls so much of human behaviour" (p.218). While much of the consumption of music is passive, in that consumers don’t actually choose to listen to music in that situation, a significant amount of this consumption occurs because the consumer desired to listen to a particular piece of music at that time.

There are many reasons why someone might choose to consume music at a particular time. Hargreaves and North (1999) have proposed that music serves four main functions in people’s lives. These are emotional expression, aesthetic enjoyment and entertainment, communication, and symbolic representation. The majority of related literature focuses on the intrapersonal reasons for listening to music such as emotional expression, aesthetic enjoyment and entertainment (e.g. Holbrook and Gardner 1993). These factors do not, however, fully explain the variation of music consumption behaviour found in different settings. It is therefore important to investigate the interpersonal functions and processes (communication and symbolic representation) in order to fully understand behaviour related to the consumption of music.

It is a fairly widely accepted notion that music can be used as a tool to communicate extra musical (symbolic) meaning (e.g. Hargreaves and North 1999, Frith 1996). However there is very little understanding of how music is used symbolically, how decisions are made about what music best represents the consumer and what might influence these decisions. This paper outlines an exploratory investigation into these issues.


Music and Consumer Behaviour

Within the consumer behaviour literature music has generally been treated as a factor influencing consumer decision making and intention to purchase other products. There is a notable amount of research that has examined the effects of music in advertising (e.g. Park and Young 1986). The influence of background music on purchase intentions has also been examined in some detail (e.g. Milliman 1986). This research however, focuses on the passive consumption of music, when consumers have not actually chosen to listen to music. Accordingly music has not been treated as a product in its own right.

The combination of unusual consumption features (e.g. consumption without purchase, mobility and repeated consumption (Lacher 1989 and Lacher and Mizerski 1994)) and pervasive influences on everyday life suggests that music should be an important area of study for consumer behaviour researchers. However, issues related to the active consumption of music have often not been considered and where work has been done, it has focused primarily on the choice and purchase of music. A small number of studies have investigated the intention to purchase music (e.g. Holbrook 1982, Lacher and Mizerski 1994). There has also been some interest in the development of musical preferences (e.g. Holbrook and Schindler 1989). The actual purchase of music is only a small part of the consumption experience as music can be "consumed without purchase and re-experienced without repurchase" (Lacher and Mizerski, 1994, p.367). Despite this, the post-purchase consumption of music is an area that has largely been ignored by consumer researchers.

Literature in both consumer behaviour and musicology has also tended to focus on the private, as opposed to social, consumption of music. Yet Bowman (1998) asserts that "music is fundamentally social" (p.304) as 'the social’ is part of what music is. Music is socially constructed, socially embedded and its nature and value are inherently social (Bowman 1998). This notion is supported by a wider group of music researchers. For example, Hargreaves and North (1997) maintain that "what makes [...] sounds into music is the way in which people collectively imbue them with musical meaning, and [that] a vital part of this process s the social and cultural context in which sounds exist" (p.1). This perspective is part of a general move within the social sciences towards the study of behaviour within its social context, a notion that has also gained support within the consumer behaviour field (e.g. Belk 1975). Consequently, it is unlikely that consumption practices in social situations are the same as those in private situations.

A number of reasons for listening to music have been identified in the literature. These can be classified as intra-personal (e.g. emotion management) and inter-personal (e.g. communication) (Hargreaves and North 1999). Related to the focus on private consumption of music, it is the intrapersonal reasons for listening to music, such as emotion and aesthetic enjoyment that have received the most attention from researchers. These factors alone however do not fully explain the variation in music consumption behaviour across all people and all situations. Hargreaves and North (1999) also suggest that there are interpersonal functions of music, including the symbolic representation of extra-musical meaning that may assist in explaining this behaviour. Relevant theories from consumer research, particularly self-concept and symbolic consumption, may provide explanations of this variation when considered alongside intra-personal factors, as they refer to the communicative and symbolic properties of products.

Self Concept and Symbolic Consumption

Symbolic consumption theory proposes that consumers utilise the symbolic meaning in products to communicate information about some aspect of themselves (e.g. Levy 1959, Hirschman 1980 and Elliott 1994). In order to understand the processes that might be involved in the symbolic consumption of music, an understanding of self-concept must first be gained.

The definition of self concept has been the source of much argument in the literature. This is primarily a consequence of the variety of perspectives from which self concept has been studied (Sirgy, 1982). However there does seem to be some agreement that the term 'self concept’ refers to the "totality of the individuals thoughts and feelings having reference to himself as an object" (Rosenberg, 1979, p.7). It has long been recognised that the boundaries of the self concept are not limited to the physical and mental self, but may also include the products and services that one consumes (James 1890, Belk 1988). Thus the consumption of products influences the self concept and the self concept influences the consumption of products.

This notion underlies much work in the area, but in utilising the self concept, it has been treated in a variety of ways. Sirgy (1982) stated that there is "ambiguity and confusion on the precise conceptualisation of self concept in consumer behaviour literature" (p.288). At that time, the main argument revolved around the question of a unidimensional versus multidimensional construct. Although a multidimensional approach has now become generally accepted, Hogg, Cox and Keeling (2000) have noted that there is still some debate surrounding the number and content of different views of the self. Recently, the idea of 'possible selves’, as proposed by Markus and Nurius (1986) has gained much popularity (e.g. Hogg et all 2000). Possible selves include all of the selves which are possible for that person, such as what individuals could become, would they would like to become and what they are afraid of becoming. Implicit in this conceptualisation is the role self concept plays in motivating all behaviour, including consumption behaviour.

Another aspect of self that is gaining more attention is that of the situational self concept (e.g. Schenk and Holman, 1980). This perspective proposes that the self concept is situationally defined. When the concept of possible selves is combined with that of the situational self an understanding of the self concept as a 'working self concept’ is gained. The 'working self concept’ consists of "the core self conceptions embedded in a context of more tentative self conceptions that are tied to the prevailing circumstances" (Markus and Wurf, 1987, p.306).

The area of self concept that arguably forms the largest body of research is related to the image congruence hypothesis. First proposed by Grubb and Grathwhol in 1967 this hypothesis argued that people strive to achieve congruency between their self concept and the images of the products or brands they consume. This hypothesis is based on three propositions (1) self concept is of value to the individual and behaviour will be directed toward the protection and enhancement of self concept, (2) the purchase, display and use of goods communicates symbolic meaning to the individual and to others, and (3) the consuming behaviour of an individual will be directed toward enhancing self concept through the consumption of goods as symbols (Sirgy, 1982, p.288). It is here that the link between self concept and symbolic consumption can be seen.

From the image congruency perspective, symbolic consumption is facilitated by the meaning attached to symbols and social interaction. Social interaction is important as it is only through communication that symbols obtain meaning (Hirschman 1980). However recent research has indicated that the audience for an individuals symbolic consumption could be both themselves and others (e.g. Elliott 1997). Most research is however, focused on symbolic consumption in social settings.

Not all products lend themselves to symbolic consumption. Holman (1981) identified three conditions that distinguish products as vehicles for communication. These are visibility in use, variability in use and personalisability. Music is one such product as it is visible (audible), variable (many choices exist) and personalisable (certain genres can be attributed to a stereotypic image of a generalised user). However, as discussed previously, very little is known about how music is symbolically consumed in social situations.


The literature review illustrates that there are a variety of theories that could be used to explain the self-symbolic consumption of music in social situations. However as very little research has been conducted on this topic there is little indication as to which theories are most relevant. For this reason an exploratory study was undertaken in order to provide insight into the specific issues involved in the self symbolic consumption of music in social situations and to assist in the development of propositions for future research.

The specific aims of the exploratory study were to explore the following three questions:

1. is music consumed symbolically and how is this facilitated?

2. how might decisions be made about what music best represents the consumer in a situation?

3. what factors might influence these decisions?

The exploratory study focused on those people for whom this behaviour is more common. The literature suggests that it is around 18-24 years of age that both musical preferences and the self-concept are being stabilised (Holbrook and Schindler 1989 and Dobson et al 1981). It was also assumed that those who have a greater interest in music would be more likely to use music in this way.

The methodology used was personal and focus group interviews and was based on friendship groups. Friendship groups were used mainly for the reason that the behaviour being investigated is based on social interaction. Thus, by involving members of a friendship group insight can been gained into the meaning of the behaviour and the context in which it occurs. In order to gain access to a defined friendship group, flatting groups (people living in a shared house) were used. Flats (shared houses) were sought via posters placed on public notice boards in various tertiary institutions in Dunedin. Incentives were offered in the form of a CD voucher for each individual respondent and a grocery voucher for the whole flat. Potential respondents were screened when they called to ensure that they, and the other members of their flat, met the criteria and were able to take part in each interview. Two friendship groups were selected, each with five participants.

The exploratory study was comprised of two personal interviews with each respondent and one group interview with each flat. In total twenty personal interviews and two focus group interviews were conducted. These interviews and two practice interviews took place from August to October 2000. All interviews were semi-structured allowing the interviewer to follow interesting leads as they arose. The objective of the first interview was to gain an understanding of the respondent and how music fitted into their life. The second interview aimed to identify and describe instances of the social consumption of music in the respondent’s everyday life. The objective of the group interview was to discuss issues that arose from the personal interviews such as situations in which the self-symbolic consumption of music may be more apparent and the type of people who were more or less likely to behave in this manner. The interviews were transcribed and then content analysed in order to determine common themes relating to the research objective. Propositions for future research were also developed. The findings are discussed in the following section and the propositions are presented in the Conclusion and Implications.


A number of themes have emerged from the interviews. These are presented and discussed below.

Theme 1: The symbolic consumption of music.

The consumption of music was discussed mostly with reference to emotional expression in that music is often consumed because of the congruence between the emotion in the music and the mood of the listener. One friendship group actually had a 'happy songs’ tape and a 'sad songs’ tape that they listened to. In line with Hirschman and Holbrook’s (1982) work on the experiential aspects of consumer behaviour, it was found that music is also consumed simply for entertainment purposes. One respondent said that he enjoys music but "it’s background, it’s just music" [male]. These two reasons for consumption are directly related to the intrapersonal functions of music as presented by Hargreaves and North (1999). With regard to their communication function, there was very little evidence. The one exception was the respondent who described an occasion where he played angry music (Metallica) very loudly to annoy a flatmate in order to indicate that she should "get a life".

In relation to the question of whether music is also consumed symbolically much evidence was provided to support this use. Most of the examples provided were observations of other people’s behaviour and it seemed that the respondents could not/would not recognise this behaviour in themselves. The manner in which respondents described their observations indicated that it is not socially desirable to use music in this way. An explanation for the lack of personal examples may therefore be that admitting to this behaviour would reflect negatively on the respondent’s self image. Alternatively the explanation could lie in the level of self monitoring the respondents undertake. Hogg et al (2000) found a result similar to this in their study of the consumption of alcoholic drinks, but only for those who were low self monitors.

However, the ease with which respondents could provide examples of this behaviour in others indicates that music is commonly used for this purpose. The following quotes illustrate that music is used symbolically to represent the self both through consumption and non-consumption. Each example refers to a situation where the person who is consuming the music publicly presents part of their self concept through the music. In the first quote it seems that the actual self is being presented. However, the following quotes are examples of attempts to present aspects of the ideal self, including both approach and avoidance selves. It could be assumed that because the observers recognised this, then the attempt to use the meaning inherent in the music to represent one self was unsuccessful.

"When it’s your friends and stuff, I notice that you listen to the music that they put on, like if you’re at a party, you can tell its like their personality, sort of thrashy [fast, head banging music] or slow. You can tell they put it on because they like it and because it’s sort of them, their mood and how they are" [female].

"At Art School, everybody puts on Radio One and everybody hates it. Its just at Art School it’s the station you are supposed to listen to" [female].

"I think there are some people who don’t like them [the Vengaboys] and then there’s some people who say they don’t like them because they want to keep up an image" [male].

"I remember at school, at a 7th Form party, someone put on Hanson and the big rugby heads were like 'what did you put that on for?’ Then you see them tapping their feet and bopping their heads. They complain once just to say 'right I’m disapproving’" [male].

Conversely, because they believe that a person’s musical preferences are a reflection of their self-concept, these respondents also use the public shared meaning (Richins 1994) related to music to help them get to know the person listening to the music. However, it was suggested by some of the respondents that musical preferences could provide insight into part of their personality and not the whole.

Theme 2: Means of symbolically consuming music.

Choosing music to listen to in the presence of others does not appear to be the only means of symbolically consuming music. The public display of music paraphernalia and memorabilia, particular styles of dress and the ability to knowledgeably discuss the music also appear to constitute self-symbolic consumption of music. Respondents also discussed the idea that the language you use while talking about music can communicate to others your relationship with music. For example, one female respondent used the term 'pride’ when describing how she felt about her favourite band, Nine Inch Nails. The use of this term indicates that the respondent has incorporated this band and their music into her self and that she is able to extend and communicate her self through symbols related to this band. This is an example of a product being incorporated into the extended self (Belk 1988). On the other hand, the respondents caution that the use of a particular symbolic action does not guarantee successful self-symbolic consumption. If the signified does not believe that you genuinely like the music then the presented self is unsubstantiated B "there is a difference between singing along and actually liking it" [male].

Theme 3: Decisions governed by social norms

The first stage of the music consumption ritual is to determine who is oing to choose what music the social group will listen to. This decision appears to be governed by a multitude of social norms. One particular example that was mentioned by several different respondents was that of listening to music while travelling in a car. In this situation the owner of the car normally chooses the music. "When I got in the car I was thinking well its not my car so I don’t really want to just put music that I like on, in case she might not like it and because I feel it’s a bit rude to jump in there and do that" [female]. Similarly, ownership of the stereo seems to be more influential in determining who will choose the music that the group will listen to than ownership of the music itself. This was also the basis for decisions at parties. A number of respondents indicated that because it was their stereo that was being used they were primarily responsible for the choice of music. One function of the self concept is to provide strategies for interpersonal interaction (Markus and Wurf 1987). If the motor vehicle or stereo has been integrated into the extended self through ownership then violating the social norm could be likened to attempting to control somebody’s actions. As a result of the mobile nature of music and because it can be consumed without ownership music is less subject to strict norms regarding social interaction.

Theme 4: Music is chosen from the set of music that the consumer prefers

Very rarely did respondents choose music that they didn’t normally listen to or didn’t really like. When in public, consumers present certain aspects of their self concepts (Rosenberg, 1979). If musical preferences represent the self concept then the music chosen should be selected from the pool of music that represents all aspects of the self. One exception was a female respondent who played music that she didn’t know because she wanted to keep her boyfriend happy. This respondent stated that she had compromised herself, but she was prepared to do that in order to make her partner happy.

Theme 5: Decision based on shared preferences, mood and projected image.

In general, respondents seemed to find it difficult to articulate what their musical choice decisions were based on. This notwithstanding, several factors recurred when respondents were asked what they considered when choosing which music to listen to in social situations. These were shared preferences, mood and projected image.

The respondents seemed to mostly be aware of the musical preferences of the people in the situation and would generally choose music that all of the people involved would enjoy. As one respondent said, in these situations "you don’t pick out obscure stuff" [male].

Compilation albums were deemed to be useful in social situations as they made it easier to cater to a diversity of preferences. Conversely two respondents stated that they sometimes played music that was opposed to peoples preferences in order to evoke some humour. For example one enjoyed putting on classical music and another said "I wouldn’t really put on B*witched, it would be like "Oh come on". I’ put it on for a joke" [male]. This example offers a particularly interesting insight into the self-symbolic use of music. This respondent actually owns the B*witched CD and said that he enjoys listening to it. However, his flatmates tease him about this because they see this preference as contrary to his image. It could be presumed that he has reacted to this feedback by presenting this aspect of himself in a humorous manner to avoid negatively affecting the image he has previously created.

In addition to shared preferences, the mood of the situation was nearly always considered when choosing music to listen to. Respondents attempted to match the mood of the music with the mood of the other people in the situation, and they often change music if it is not congruent with that mood.

Underlying both consideration factors of shared preferences and mood is an attempt to project the right self-image. Respondents did not explicitly state this but it was implied in their expressed concern for making the appropriate choice of music. The consequences of an inappropriate choice were that their guests or friends would be made to feel unhappy or uncomfortable. It was implied that this would be viewed as a reflection of their own self-image through their ability to interpret the meaning inherent in different music options.

Theme 6: Influence of situational variables

A number of situational influences were mentioned by the respondents, the most common of which were the people participating in the situation and the kind of relationship that exists between the respondent and those people. The following quotes illustrate that the people involved in the situation impact upon what music is chosen.

"You are kind of influenced by the people around you" [female].

"If you are with friends you listen to one thing, and then you go home and listen to something different by yourself" [male].

The specific combination of people is also an important influence on the choice of music. This suggests that the identity of the group is dependent on the totality of individual self-concepts and that any change in the combination will impact upon the behaviour of the group as a whole. " "Would any of you put on something different?" "Not if we were all still here@@ [male]. This quote also illustrates that the degree of familiarity and previous experience with a person might also be influential, in that consumption rituals are maintained over time. This is facilitated by the self-concept as one of its functions is to provide the individual with a sense of continuity in time. Conversely, people who are unfamiliar might pose less of a concern, "if you don’t know them very well you don’t really care what they think of you" [female]. However, this might be altered by the purpose of the interaction. Some respondents indicated that if they were trying to get to know someone and trying to make a good impression then the decision about what music to listen to became even more important. Additionally, respondents used music to create the appropriate mood for the purpose of the occasion. A lot of music consumption situations that were identified were centred around the consumption of alcohol. If the purpose of the occasion was to party then happy, hyped dance music was played. If however, the purpose was to relax, then a different kind of music was chosen.

Theme 7: Influence of personality variables

As with situational variables, a number of variables related to personality were identified as being influential on the decision of what music is appropriate. Much of what was discussed was actually dependent on the particular self-concept of the person, in that certain personality traits were more conducive to the symbolic use of music. For example,

"A friend of mine used to have the craziest taste in music, like nothing you’d ever heard of, nothing I’d ever head of! But she was like the kind of person that was a complete...she really didn’t want to be like anyone, so individual, it was scary. She had this huge collection of CD’s most of them I’d never heard of in my life. She just played them all the time and didn’t care what people thought. She probably just played them to be different because she liked to be different" [female].

The presentational self of the person in this example was based on differentiation from others. The respondents could not see this kind of behaviour in their own actions and it was mostly attributed to those who were seen as trying not to conform. "Supposed non-conformists use music to do this B art cafT music, repetitive" [male]. The congruence between self-concept and product concept can be observed here as the link between a certain subculture (non-conformists or alternatives) and a certain genre of music (dance or house). It was implied that any person attempting to portray a non-conformist image will ironically also listen to this music. Respondents discussed the idea that some images required more ongoing maintenance than others and that the non-conformist image was one such example.

The person’s overall interest in music and the actual type of music preferred were also seen to influence the self-symbolic consumption of music. "Doesn’t it come down to what music means to you in your life? Because music to me is just music, whereas maybe it’s a lifestyle to [another respondent]" [male]. The respondent referred to in this quote and her best friends are both heavily into bands such as Nine Inch Nails and Korn. They also partake in wider consumption activities such as the collection of paraphernalia and dress in a style congruent with the image portrayed by these bands in order to strengthen the link between their musical preferences and their self-concepts. Both respondents agreed that music means a lot to them and mentioned a sense of pride when discussing these bands. It was suggested that for people like these respondents, the decision of what music to listen to in social situations is more complicated and more important because music has been integrated into their self-concept to a much greater degree.




The findings indicate that music is consumed for symbolic purposes in addition to emotional expression and aesthetic enjoyment. The ways in which decisions are made regarding the most appropriate music for self-symbolic consumption and the influences on these decisions can be described using aspects of symbolic consumption theory. For example instances of the following concepts have been observed in the process of consuming music in social situations: expression of different aspects of self; self and brand image congruency; interpersonal functions of the self-concept; self extension; symbolic communication; consumption rituals and meaning transfer. Propositions based on the findings have been developed. These are outlined in Table 1 and are linked to the themes to which they relate.

It appears that situational and self concept variables have an important influence on the self symbolic consumption of music in social situations, however the exact nature of the influence is unknown. Further research investigating the propositions outlined in Table 1 should be undertaken to facilitate the development of a theory of the self symbolic consumption of music in social situations.


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Gretchen Larsen, University of Otago, New Zealand
Rob Lawson, University of Otago, New Zealand
Sarah Todd, University of Otago, New Zealand


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5 | 2001

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