Music has been part of human society for millennia. 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 the mechanisms that lead to mood changes or mood regulation that are associated with music. This includes why listening to different kinds of music improves focus, helps to manage mood during stress, or improves mood during times of sadness.

Why Do We Listen to Music?

In a psychological survey conducted in 2013 examining the reasons why people listen to music, analysis found that listed reasons included:

  • Regulating mood and stress (arousal)
  • Achieving self-awareness
  • Expressing social relatedness

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 one’s 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, Kyrghistani, 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 in 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 indicating emotional arousal.

Listening to our favorite songs will make us happy, which is indicated by the following:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Rising blood pressure
  • Faster pulse
  • 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, 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 taste. 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-down process” 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, for 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 Ignites Passion and Imagination

Most people in the modern world listen to several genres of music thanks to the ease of access to hundreds of radio stations, streaming music services, in-store music, and subscription downloads. Listening to music is a much more private experience than ever before, and finding one musical genre that you love is easier than ever before. However, certain aspects of music work on almost all of us, which means that music can be used in a variety of settings to ease stress, inspire confidence, and increase productivity.