Music can increase focus, help to manage stress, or improve mood during times of sadness.
It has long been understood that music impacts our feelings and mood, but the reasons for that impact have not been studied until very recently. Now, brain scans and psychological research are discovering how the mechanisms that lead to mood changes or mood regulation are associated with music.
The first two reasons in this list were found to be more important than the third. Music was reported to be deeply personal, often used in the foreground as a way of improving motivation or focus, or used in the background as a means of regulating mood and easing stress. Using music as a method of relating to friends or family, identifying culturally, or expressing oneself to peers was less common.
Most psychological studies involving music have been conducted on people in the westernized world, but some cross-cultural studies have found that unfamiliar music from other cultures can still be interpreted in similar ways. For example, Western listeners could tell whether a song was intended to be happy or sad even when it was from an unfamiliar culture like Navajo Native American or Hindustani. A survey conducted of people in a remote tribe living in Cameroon found that most listeners easily identified when Western music was happy or sad.
For example, listeners agreed that when songs were soft or slow, they were supposed to reflect sadness; jaunty and fast-paced music at a moderate volume was interpreted as happy. It seems that, across cultures, certain features of music are common to all experiences, suggesting that they developed in similar ways to regulate or inspire similar emotional experiences.
How the Reward System and Dopamine Relate to Music
One of the first studies on the emotional association with music was conducted by Leonard Meyer in 1956. Meyer analyzed the fifth movement in Beethoven’s masterpiece, String Quartet in C-sharp major, Op. 131. After examining the tonal changes and measures, Meyer concluded that creating unfulfilled expectations caused suspense and tension in the listener, which leads to the emotional response to fulfilled expectations.
Listening to music triggers physical changes that indicate emotional arousal. For example, listening to our favorite songs will make us happy, which is indicated by the following:
Rising blood pressure
Lowered electrical conductance on the skin
Activation of areas of the brain involved in physical movement
The cerebellum is highly activated by our favorite songs, triggering increased blood flow to the legs. This may be part of why dance is so closely associated with nearly every genre of music. The region of the brain most impacted by almost every type of music in the world is also the area that makes us want to move, even if this is just tapping our feet or bobbing our heads.
One study conducted by Montreal researchers closely examined the brains of 217 volunteers, looking for people who experienced “chills” when listening to music. They narrowed the group down to 10 study subjects and then watched that group’s brains as they listened to playlists of their favorite songs.
Though the group was small, the playlists stretched across dozens of genres, representing a wide range of music tastes. Images from the brains of these 10 participants found that favorite music releases dopamine in two places in the brain: the dorsal and ventral striatum. These areas typically light up from pleasurable stimuli, whether it is a hug or a drug; however, the team concluded that music could effectively trigger this release as well.
The Montreal research team also found that listening to favorite music caused an “anticipatory effect,” similar to a Pavlovian response of excitement. This effect occurred during familiar, expected, but enjoyed swells or changes in the songs. This anticipation effect was also found in people who were unfamiliar with the song, but who expected certain patterns in the music that did not pay off until later or even at the end of the song.
Emotional Perception When Listening to Music
In 2012, a research team at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands found that music deeply impacted what the listeners perceived were their emotions. The two lead psychologists asked participants to rank their happiness or sadness using emoticons. They found that, while listening to music, participants rarely used the neutral facial expression response even when no smiling emoticon was shown as an option.
They concluded that this represented a “top-downprocess”in the brain, when the mind interprets something about the world that is not inherently there. The most common example of this is when you interpret something about your surroundings based on what you see. The 2012 research found that there was an emotional top-down process, similar to the visual top-down process, which occurred when examining one’s own emotions.
Another study compared songbirds experiencing bird songs to humans experiencing music. They found that both birds and humans experienced changes in their amygdala with some kinds of music. For birds, the songs were discordant, while for humans, the music was categorized as “melancholy” or about “unrequited love.” Songs that triggered a rush of limerence or new love tapped into the mesolimbic reward system in both humans and birds.
Yet another 2012 study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, reported that ambient noise at a moderate volume of about 70 decibels, which is about the volume of a vacuum cleaner, could improve creativity. Listening to louder noise than that, however, reduced creativity through distraction. Music without lyrics could be a form of ambient, soothing noise to improve not just mood, but also productivity and creativity.
A study conducted in 2013 reported that people who listened to upbeat music improved their moods and happiness, in the long term, within two weeks. The first of two listed studies found that listening to 12 minutes of music associated with positive mood intentionally elevated mood compared to a group who listened to any music without focusing on improving their mood.
In the second study, participants were instructed to listen to music with a happy valence. One group was told to intentionally improve their mood while listening, and the other group was not given other instructions. Those in the second study who were told to focus on being happier while listening to happy music reported greater elevation in mood compared to the other group.
Music Reduces Stress
Repeated studies have shown that music can reduce the experience of stress and improve overall well-being.
Listening to music has been associated with direct effects on physiological aspects of stress. Study participants showed lower cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure when they listened to music, helping to calm the body and promote relaxation.
In addition, a meta-analysis of various studies on the connection between music and stress relief found that music had a psychological effect on stress in addition to a psychological effect. Study participants experienced improvements in worry, anxiety, and restlessness when they listened to music.
Specialized music therapy involves using music — listening to it, creating it, or thinking about it — to improve well-being. Therapists may incorporate various aspects of music into sessions with clients in either individual or group settings. The incorporation of music into sessions may enable clients to express themselves more openly, find new areas of emotional release, and better process emotions.
There’s no question that listening to music is a universal experience with various benefits to both physical and mental health. It can be used in a variety of settings to ease stress, inspire confidence, and increase productivity.
Music can have a deep impact on mood, and this can easily affect overall quality of life.