Abstract: Music and Motherhood: Using Melody and Lyrics to Prime Motherhood to Increase Reception of a Teen Suicide Prevention Message

◆ Ashley Phelps, University of Southern California
◆ Sheila T. Murphy, University of Southern California

Scholars argue the failure of many public health campaigns to persuade target audiences is often due to psychological reactance, or the negative emotional state aroused when the audience perceives a threat to their freedom. Entertainment-education strategies have been employed for disseminating health information for decades, with persuasive effects being attributed to a reduction in resistance to the message as a result of identification with characters, transportation into the narrative, or emotional response. The effects of musicals — where a narrative is set to music — has not been well studied, even though music has been shown to increase attention and memory of events.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans ages 10-24 years old, and one prevention strategy suggested by the CDC is teaching children skills to cope with stress. A 2(melody: absent or present) x 2(lyrics: absent or present) between-subjects factorial design experiment tested whether priming mothers of teenagers with melody and/or lyrics about the difficulty of motherhood would decrease the perceived threat and potential reactance to a message about coping with stress and teen suicide prevention either through emotional response to the music or activation of motherhood identity. All priming stimuli were based a song from the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen. Participants were randomly assigned to one of four conditions -- a no melody/no lyrics control condition, a melody-only condition (without lyrics), a lyrics-only condition (lyrics spoken), or a melody and lyrics condition (how the song is typically experienced). After being exposed to these priming conditions, participants all read the same public health message, which contained two sections about coping with stress and distress. Participants completed a follow-up survey within two weeks.
Participants (N=415) were mothers ages 28-40 years (M=36, SD=3.16) with at least one child between the ages of 10-16 years. Participants who indicated familiarity with Dear Evan Hansen were excluded. Analyses revealed that the priming stimuli effectively activated emotions as predicted. Listening to the spoken lyrics only resulted in the most negative reaction with both significantly higher negative emotions and significantly lower positive emotions. In contrast, listening to the melody only without the lyrics resulted in a significantly more positive reaction than all other conditions as well as significantly lower affective reactance to the public health message. The control condition and music and lyrics condition fell between these two extremes.
Analyses also revealed an interesting effect on knowledge retention. Immediately after reading the message, participants in the lyrics-only condition retained significantly more facts than the control group, but that difference was gone within two weeks. In contrast, although only marginally different at post-test, participants in the melody-only condition had significantly more knowledge than the control group at follow up. Finally, participants in the lyrics-only condition reported thinking about the message about coping with stress significantly more than those in the control condition. These findings support prior research that found music to aid information retention, and demonstrate that melody and lyrics can both produce significant, sometimes conflicting, shifts in mood and message processing.