Brooke Mills: Music Genre & Conflict in Relationships

“I Learned it From the Radio.” The Effects of Music Genre on Conflict Communication Between Romantic Relationships

Brooke Mills

Approximately 20% of married couples and 33% of adolescents in a romantic relationship in the U.S. are victims of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse  ( Physical or verbal abuse occurs in negative interactions, such as conflicts, which are associated with greater health problems (asthma, diabetes, blood pressure, etc.) (Aloia & Solomon, 2015). Conflict can be operationalized as a physiological stressor, measured by the increased production of cortisol, a hormone released in the brain. Under stressful situations, additional cortisol is released to mobilize energy against the source of stress (Aloia & Solomon, 2015). High cortisol levels have been shown to cause immune system suppression, high glucose levels, and decreased bone formation (Aloia & Solomon, 2015). Considering this information, an individual’s overall physical health may be improved with the knowledge of conflict styles and positive, versus negative, conflicts. Understanding conflict, along with social learning theory, persuasion, and priming has the potential to reduce the number of couples experiencing negative conflict interactions.

This study examines the priming effects of music on conflict styles in romantic relationships. Results of this study may be helpful in informing couples about the priming effects of music on their potential conflict resolution strategies. This information could help couples make informed decisions about whether or not to be exposed to music before or during an argument with a romantic partner. This knowledge may ultimately help salvage relationships, improve health, and turn negative conflict interactions into positive ones.


Conflict is a natural and inevitable event (Meeks, Hendrick & Clyde, 1998). According to Knobloch’s (2007) relational turbulence model, people encounter turmoil during times of transition in romantic relationships. Transitions are defined as periods of discontinuity between relationship stages, which are marked by shifts in people’s definition of the relationship and their patterns of behavior (Knobloch, 2007). The words “turbulence” and “turmoil” imply negative conflict interactions. However, the definition of conflict does not specify that the interaction must be negative. Conflict is defined as “any disagreement between interdependent parties who perceive that they have incompatible goals” (Canary, Cody & Manusov, 2003, p. 73).  Therefore, conflict can be viewed either through a positive or a negative lens. In fact, conflict interactions can be productive if managed properly, or destructive, if managed improperly.  A productive conflict ultimately leads to a solution that resolves the conflict with both parties; whereas, a negative conflict utilizes hurtful intentions and a winning mentality that demonstrates concern only for self (Canary, et al., 2003).

"Sorry" by Justin Bieber, Original Single Cover (from Wikipedia)
“Sorry” by Justin Bieber, Original Single Cover (from Wikipedia)

Different conflict styles may have an impact on whether or not a conflict interaction is positive or negative. The various conflict styles include: avoiding, obliging, dominating, compromising and integrating (Oetzel, 1998).  A person engaging in a dominating conflict style shows low concern for others and high concern for oneself (Oetzel, 1998).  He or she is also assertive without real consideration for other’s outcomes, which could lead to a more negative conflict interaction, or, lack of a solution to the conflict. Additionally, an avoiding conflict style demonstrates little concern for both self and others and complete withdrawal from the situation, therefore, no resolution is reached. Lack of conflict resolution indicates a negative conflict interaction. On the other hand, people engaging in an obliging conflict style show high concern for others and low concern for oneself (Oetzel, 1998).  This style, along with integrating, which is a cooperative and unassertive style, could lead to a more positive conflict interaction. Finally, a person engaging in a compromising conflict style shows a moderate amount of concern for self and others. There is a reasonable amount of cooperation and assertiveness, which is more conducive to positive conflict interactions where a solution can be reached.  Evidence supporting the existence of both positive and negative conflict has been demonstrated by studies that show some couple’s relationship satisfaction increases as their level of confrontation increases, and some couple’s relationship satisfaction decreases as their level of confrontation increases (Canary, et al., 2003).   Healthy tension may contribute to temporary relationship dissatisfaction, but it may also lead to long-term relational prosperity (Meeks, et al., 1998).

Focusing more on the negative aspect of conflict, verbal conflict has been shown to be a catalyst for relational aggression (Roloff, 1996) and predicts the termination of relationships (Malis & Roloff, 2006). Conflict episodes often contain negative statements such as criticism, disagreement, and sarcasm that romantic partners find upsetting (Malis & Roloff, 2006). As a result, the possibility of relational termination due to negative conflict has dramatically increased the volume of research focused on interpersonal conflict (Malis & Roloff, 2006).


Music is an undeniable component in the construction of youth culture, however, controversy continues over the degree to which music influences listeners (Atkin & Abelman, 1999). Some genres of music, in particular, have gained some traction in both research studies and legislation. Hip-hop and rap have been focused on most heavily in recent years. Kistler and Lee (2010) state that 65% of adolescents between 13 and 18 listen to hip hop over any other genre on a daily basis. Such media exposure prompts questions about the possible effects on attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of youth. This concern is so prevalent that the United States Congress has held special hearings to address the issue and regulations have been placed on music sales by the Parent’s Music Resource Center, which requires Parental Advisory stickers on music thought to be unsuitable for all ages (Kistler & Lee, 2010).

The fear that young people may be influenced by the music they listen to is not without a basis. Previous research has long established links between sexual media exposure and sexual attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors (Kistler & Lee, 2010). A study conducted by Hansen and Hansen (1988) demonstrated that sexually provocative lyrics acted as a prime that influenced consumers’ social judgments and perceptions. Also, according to Howard (1985), teenagers considered pop music a major source of pressure to engage in sexual activity at an early age.

Anderson, Carnagey, and Eubanks’ (2003) studied the effects of violent music lyrics on students. They found that exposure to violent lyrics predicted a greater degree of aggressive feelings and thoughts. Furthermore, Chen, Miller, Grube and Waiters (1995) have warned that frequent exposure to rap and hip-hop is associated with illicit drug use, alcohol abuse, and aggression. Barongan and Hall (1995) demonstrated the impact rap has on aggression and misogyny. Although other researchers argue that rap is just a social statement that reflects the harsh realities of inner-city life it is well supported that such music serves to shape attitudes, beliefs, intentions, motivations, and behaviors (Dillard & Shen, 2013). There is clearly a powerful, influential potential of the music medium among adolescents.

Music also provides a sense of community and commonality of interpretive experience (Timmerman, et al., 2008). Specifically, mainstreaming is a process by which media generates a relatively common outlook or set of values through heavy exposure (Dillard & Shen, 2013) The identification of music based on theme (or genre) creates a certain image that adolescents can choose to adopt. The following is a portion of a song that demonstrates this phenomenon:

Bein’ the girl in a country song
How in the world did it go so wrong?
Like all we’re good for
Is looking good for you and your friends on the weekend
Nothing more
We used to get a little respect
Now we’re lucky if we even get
To climb up in your truck, keep our mouth shut and ride along
And be the girl in a country song (

These lyrics are from a popular country song from 2015, called “Girl in a Country Song” by singers Maddie and Tae. The lyrics of this song portray music as an influential source that can impact the identification of an adolescent. Specifically, the lines “bein’ the girl in a country song” imply that country music is a significant source of identity for the singers.

The genre people choose may also be reflective of pre-existing perspectives they hold about life. The impact of the media may be a means of self-identification with similar people, who, in turn, begin to form a social group with shared world-views  (Timmerman, et al., 2008). Furthermore, when examining groups exposed to different genres (musical content or themes), it was determined that there was a positive correlation, which indicated that prior exposure to music increased the outcomes associated with engagement in various behaviors (Timmerman, et al., 2008).

Social Learning Theory

The question of how music is influential to such a degree leads us to examine three key concepts: social learning theory, priming, and persuasion. The first, social learning theory, states that we learn how to act through our observation of others (Canary, Cody & Manusov, 2003).  Observations generally include what can be heard in addition to what can be seen. Even though, while listening to music, there isn’t a repeated viewing of actions, there is repeated exposure to the messages. Social learning theory explains the impact of the media as a source of information that serves as a basis for learning about the environment, which, in turn, creates the basis for subsequent action (Timmerman, et al, 2008). According to Arnett (1995), youth have a great amount of control and choice in regard to the media they choose to consume. As a result, they also have a choice in the socialization they inevitably receive from such media (Arnett, 1995).

Social learning theory posits that humans have the capability to learn through symbolic environments, such as through media portrayals Bandura (2002). Through this indirect learning, people act based on their images of reality. The more a person’s reality depends on symbolic environment, the more likely he or she is to act in ways reflective of that environment (Bandura, 2002). In other words, the more a person listens to music as a source of symbolic environment, the more he or she adopts reality and behaviors reflective of that symbolic environment. Social learning theory explains that people take generic, abstract features from different media portrayals, transform those portrayals into rules of behavior, and use those rules to implement new behaviors (Bandura, 2002). This is particularly applicable to those who consume large amounts of a specific genre of music, where rules of behavior are modeled constantly (Kistler & Lee, 2010).

The social learning theory phenomenon is widely recognized by the general public. It permeates popular media, as demonstrated by Thomas Rhett’s popular song, called “Learned it from the Radio.” In the song, Rhett lists dozens of behaviors he has learned by listening to songs on the radio. The following is a portion of the song that demonstrates this phenomenon:

How to wake up
How to work tough
How to roll up those sleeves
How to throw down
How to get loud
What to put in that drink
To give the stars in the sky a little halo
I learned it from the radio

How to live
How to love
Everything I need to know
I learned it from the radio. (

The lyrics of this song portray music as a source of information that guides behavior. Specifically, the lines “everything I need to know, I learned it from the radio” imply that music is a significant and vital source of learning, without which, people would not know how to live properly.

On the other hand, one could argue that people already possess certain attitudes, and therefore, seek to consume media that reinforces their pre-existing attitudes and behaviors. In general, people who are fans of a particular kind of music may seek out that genre because they already hold certain attitudes that align with the ones being presented in the music (Kistler & Lee, 2010).

Priming and Persuasion

The second important concept to understand, in regard to the influence of music, is priming. The term “priming” as applied in music research deals with whether or not music serves as a mechanism to prime someone for subsequent actions and behaviors. According to Jo and Berkowitz (1994), music serves as a mechanism to prime people. Jo and Berkowitz (1994) stated that ideas with emotional significance are linked to particular feelings and motor responses. These ideas arouse feelings and action tendencies associated with those emotions through a process called priming. For example, if an individual is driving while listening to a song by his or her favorite rock band, the violent lyrics and fast tempo prime ideas inside the individual’s mind. This, in turn, arouses feelings of anger and could increase the likelihood of certain motor behaviors, such as aggression, during the song. As mentioned before, aggression is a component of negative conflict. Therefore, understanding how music can induce a state of anger and aggression in various situations, such as driving, also helps us understand how it can cause these negative conflict behaviors in other situations, such as interpersonal conflict interactions between romantic partners.

Still from the music video for "Sorry," by Rick Ross, feat. Chris Brown (from
Still from the music video for “Sorry,” by Rick Ross, feat. Chris Brown (from

Jo and Berkowitz (1994) suggested that for a short period of time after a medium portrays certain behaviors, there is an increased chance that receivers will have thoughts that could affect their interpretation of others, believe their behaviors are justified by the media, or be inclined to behave certain ways. Additionally, Higgins, Bargh and Lombardi (1985) found that longer, more frequent primes result in stronger effects. The same is true for primes that occur close in time to the measured effect. Therefore, the more a person is exposed to music, the stronger impact it may have on their behaviors.  Likewise, priming effects fade as time elapses, evidence of which has been observed in various studies using different kinds of stimuli (Higgins, Bargh & Lombardi, 1985). As such, the longer a person waits after listening to music to have a conflict interaction with a romantic partner, the less likely it is that the priming effects will effect their behavior.

As a priming stimulus, music has both positive and negative arousing effects. Aside from aggression, as previously discussed, music has also been demonstrated as an extremely effective tool for inducing relaxation or fostering a favorable mood. For instance, Quick (2003) found that drivers who listened to music they liked displayed less aggression while driving in rush-hour traffic than drivers who heard no music. Information from studies focusing on music as a prime has been used by many industries in order to have a greater impact on their consumers. Research conducted by Berverland, Lim, Morrison and Terziovski (2006) supports the theory that the right music can help distinguish a brand and enhance an experience. This is demonstrated in the fact that 90% of television commercials include some form of music (Oakes & North, 2006). Additionally, retail chains rely heavily on background music, and a good film score can significantly heighten the emotional impact of a film.

Gordon Bruner (1990) emphasized that music is a powerful stimulus for affecting moods. This finding has also been supported throughout history by poets, playwrights, composers, and, in the last two centuries, researchers (Bruner, 1990). But, are consumers aware that their behavior is being primed by stimuli such as background music? Background music is processed through the peripheral route, which means that people are not actively thinking about the music and interpreting the lyrics.  On the other hand, receivers can also process info via the central route. The central route to persuasion is when listeners cognitively process song lyrics (Gass & Seiter, 2011).  In general, music is less likely to have an effect on highly involved receivers who concentrate on the substance of the message via the central route. Music is best used on low-involved receivers who tend to process the messages indirectly, or through the peripheral route  (Gass & Seiter, 2011).

Although the ultimate objective of persuasive messages is to reinforce or change a particular behavior, persuasive messages at best create or change beliefs (Gass & Seiter, 2011). Beliefs originate in a variety of sources: TV, formal education, radio, newspapers, Internet, and other media, as well as interactions with family and friends. Once beliefs are formed, they are the cognitive basis from which behavior follows (Dillard & Shen, 2013) Media influence is often linked with behavior change but it can also include behavior shaping and behavior reinforcement. It is also important to recognize that there are five factors at work in the production of a media effect: message, source, receiver, channel, and, context (Gass & Seiter, 2013). Therefore, it is hard to pinpoint which of the five factors is influencing the behavior change, behavior shaping or behavior reinforcement. For example, the channel (the song itself) may not be what is causing certain types of behavior; it may be the source (certain artist) instead, or, it could also be the context in which the song is heard.

RQ1:  Does listening to music prior to a conflict interaction prime subsequent aggressive or non-aggressive behavior during that interaction?

H1:  Participants exposed to rap music prior to the story-completion task will display more aggression in the conflict scenario, in comparison to the participants    exposed to country music, pop music, or no music.

RQ2:  Does listening to different genres of music prior to a conflict interaction prime people to engage in different conflict resolution styles?

H2:  In regard to conflict resolution style as a function of music genre, participants exposed to pop and rap music prior to the completion of the conflict measure instrument will display dominating and avoiding conflict resolution styles.



The present study is still currently in progress. However, preliminary data collection included 20 student participants recruited from a medium-sized university. Students were recruited through flyers in on-campus residence halls. A total of 25 flyers were given to the Office of Residence Life, which were then distributed by Resident Assistants in their respective buildings. Students chose to participate in one of eight sessions but, prior to participation, were not aware of the type of music that was to be played in their session. Students also received candy at the completion of the session they participated in. All respondents were age 18 or older.


The study was approved by the Institutional Review Board. There were a total of eight sessions held over the course of two afternoons in the conference room of a residence hall on the university’s campus. Sessions only differed by genre of music. The genres of music used for the study were as follows: no music, country, rap, and pop. Two songs from each genre were chosen. Careful consideration was given to maintain consistency of theme in order to keep the genre of music as the sole difference. Each song was selected because of its’ relationship to the theme of a conflict within a romantic relationship. Songs were chosen from the Billboard Hot 100 playlist from the last year. The songs included the following:





Country I’m Comin’ Over Chris Young 3:17
Country Nobody to Blame Chris Stapleton 4:05
Pop Bad Blood Taylor Swift 4:04
Pop Sorry Justin Bieber 3:20
Rap Sorry Rick Ross 5:20
Rap Sorry Not Sorry Bryson Tiller 3:20

Participants were asked to sit quietly and listen to the music, which was played at approximately 65 decibels. Listening to the songs took approximately seven minutes in each session, and the subsequent story-completion task took about six minutes.

The group of participants in each session was given the choice of which music genre they would like to listen to. Participants then listened to the pre-selected songs from the genre chosen by the group. To safe-guard against too many groups choosing the same genre, the genre choices were limited to groups, as needed, in order to collect data from groups exposed to all four conditions. Allowing participants to choose the genre of music was intended to increase the ecological validity of the study.

"Sorry Not Sorry" by Bryson Tiller, Original Single Cover (from
“Sorry Not Sorry” by Bryson Tiller, Original Single Cover (from

After the participants listened to the music, the participants completed a story-completion task. For the story completion task, one romantic conflict scenario was developed (see Appendix A) to gauge differences in aggressive (dominating and avoiding conflict behaviors) and non-aggressive (obliging, compromising and integrating conflict behaviors) behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, reported among participants exposed to four different music manipulations. The scenario placed the participants in the role of a romantic partner in a conflict and provided space for the participants to fill in a total of 8 responses of what he or she would say, do, think, or feel during that situation. The story completion task was developed using a measure previously published in studies by Dill, Anderson, Anderson and Deuser (1997), and Bushman and Anderson (2002). This story completion task was modified from the original version by changing the situation to a romantic partner conflict scenario and the number of items was reduced from 20 to 8. Otherwise, it is identical to the original. The responses for the story completion task were also analyzed by the researcher using the same coding information used by Anderson, Anderson and Deuser (1997), and Bushman and Anderson (2002).

Next, participants completed a questionnaire that assessed conflict resolution styles. The conflict resolution styles were measured using Oetzel’s (1998) inventory (see Appendix B). This conflict resolution style measure was modified from the original version by substituting the word “group” for the words “romantic partner.” Otherwise the scale is identical to the measure used in Oetzel’s (1998) research. The instrument contained thirty-eight items and was designed to measure dominating, integrating, compromising, avoiding, and obliging styles. Overall, there were six items that assessed dominating, nine items that assessed integrating, seven items that assessed compromising, nine items that assessed avoiding, and seven items that assessed obliging styles. For the 20 participants used in the preliminary data collection, Cronbach’s alpha reliability for this measure was 0.81.

In administering the conflict style questionnaire, the participants were instructed to think about the romantic conflict scenario they completed prior to the questionnaire. Participants were asked to continue thinking about the situation and to imagine that they had a disagreement or a conflict with their significant other. Thus, participants should have been thinking about that conflict with their significant other while completing the conflict style items. The questionnaires took approximately ten minutes to complete.

Finally, two demographic questions were asked (i.e., age and gender). Along with the demographic questions, respondents were asked about the frequency of which they listened to different genres of music, as well as their music genre preferences (see Appendix C). All documents were assigned a number in order to keep individual participants’ responses together, yet anonymous.


It is important to note that this is preliminary data; data collection is still in progress. Furthermore, not enough responses were collected in the country music condition of the experiment. These results were omitted from the analysis.

An ANOVA was used to analyze potential differences in the data. First, the relationship between genre of music and the number of reported aggressive and non-aggressive behaviors recorded in the story completion task (see Appendix A) were compared. Hypothesis 1 predicted that the group exposed to rap prior to the study would report more aggressive behaviors, thoughts, and feelings than the other groups. Results from the ANOVA showed no significant relationship; however, results did indicate potential support for H1. The group of participants exposed to rap prior to the study recorded a mean number of 6.2 aggressive responses (out of a total possible 8.0 aggressive and non-aggressive responses). In comparison, the group exposed to pop recorded a mean number of 3.2 aggressive responses.

N Mean
Aggressive             Control









Non-Aggressive     Control









Hypothesis 2 predicts that dominating and avoiding conflict resolution styles would be most prominent in the group exposed to rap prior to completion of the study. An ANOVA test was used to analyze conflict resolution style as a function of music genre. The results from the preliminary data collected using Oetzel’s (1998) conflict measure style instrument (see Appendix B) indicate possible support for H2. The results indicate that a dominating conflict resolution style was most prominent in the group exposed to rap music prior to the study (rap, n =5; p < 0.273). Contrary to H2, however, was the possible indication that the groups exposed to both rap and pop music also engaged prominently in integrating conflict resolution styles [(rap, n =5; p < 0.284), (pop, n =5; p < 0.284)]. Although these results show no statistical significance, Cronbach’s alpha reliability for this measure was 0.81. This secures confidence that the scale used was reliable, despite the small sample size. Support for this hypothesis looks promising.

Despite the lack of significance, the preliminary data comparing the control group, pop group, and rap group, looks promising. Means reflect there is a difference; however, the sample size was not enough to avoid a Type II error. It seems logical that the trend of a much lower significance level would continue, given a larger sample size.


The question remains, does music serve as a priming mechanism for subsequent behaviors and conflict resolution styles? Jo and Berkowitz (1994) state that music does serve as a mechanism to prime people. Furthermore, Barongan and Hall (1995) specifically demonstrated the priming effects of rap music on aggression. The preliminary results of the present study indicate possible support for both H1 and Barongan and Hall’s (1995) findings that rap primes subsequent aggressive behavior.

Recall that a person engaging in a dominating conflict style shows low concern for others and high concern for oneself, as well as assertiveness (Oetzel, 1998).  The resulting lack of consideration for others’ outcomes could lead to a more negative conflict interaction. Since Barongan and Hall (1995) found that rap primes subsequent aggressive behavior (a component of a negative conflict interaction) it is reasonable to conclude that other behaviors associated with negative conflict interactions, such as dominating conflict resolution behaviors, will be associated with rap. Results of the present study are trending toward support this conclusion, which, in turn, also supports H2.

As mentioned before, aggression is a component of negative conflict. The possibility of relational termination due to negative conflict has dramatically increased the volume of research focused on interpersonal conflict (Malis & Roloff, 2006). Understanding how music can induce a state of anger and aggression in various situations, such as in conflict interactions between romantic partners, could potentially provide information that will help yield more positive conflict interactions for romantic partners in the future. However, additional data will need to be collected in order to more accurately measure the effects of the music on conflict resolution and aggression in romantic relationships.

The greatest limitation to the current study is the size of the data set. The data reflect promising support for the hypotheses; however, the sample size is not currently large enough to reduce the likelihood of Type II error. Furthermore, the researcher is not able to prevent participants from listening to music before their arrival to the study. Any music listened to prior to the study may have an impact on the participants’ responses. Additionally, not all respondents were in a relationship at the time the study was conducted. Any bias due to how a previous relationship ended (either positively or negatively) could have colored the participants’ perceptions and responses to be either aggressive or non-aggressive.

Please click here to view a PDF of Appendix A, B, and C.

Brooke Mills (Class of 2017) is currently working toward her B.A. in Public Relations and Communication Studies. She is the former CEO of Aramis Consulting, a student-run business out of the Williams College of Business, and she is also involved in several groups on campus. After graduation she plans to pursue a career with GE Global Communications, where she will be interning during her senior year. She is passionate about Xavier and is thankful for her time there. She is particularly thankful for the faculty at Xavier who have been impactful during her college career, including: Dr. Thomas Wagner, Dr. Alexandra Korros, Dr. E. Paul Colella, Dr. Lisa Ottum, Don Tassone, Kevin Prothero, Owen Raisch, and everyone in the Interfaith office.


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