One of the scariest musical themes famously has only two notes: an alternating crescendo between an E and F chord, known to ignite terror in many. The Jaws theme by John Williams is an example of many pieces of music that are known to raise fear in listeners. ‘Ave Satani’ from The Omen features a choir singing in Latin, and is yet another musical theme that sends a chill down our spine, and makes us look in the mirror twice to make sure we’re alone (or are we?). Even simply listening to Krzysztof Penderecki’s ‘De Natura Sonoris No.1’ used in The Shining can bring back the sheer horror of the film.
Okay, okay – let’s switch playlists, shall we? Imagine listening to Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’, the soft piano resonating around the room. Or perhaps Yiruma’s illustrious song, ‘The River Flows in You’, while sitting in a park surrounded by trees as a gentle breeze makes its way to you. These classical and new age pieces are often associated with feelings of relaxation, contentment, and being at peace.
These are just two examples of how different genres of music can make us feel different emotions. Have you ever listened to some upbeat, fast-paced pop music on your morning run? It may feel like you’re about to run out of energy, but that pumped up chorus from ‘Uptown Funk’ is just what you need to get through the last rep. Or maybe you’re tuning into your moody tune playlist because you miss your friend who moved away recently, and listening to Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ is just the perfect sad song you need.
We seem to have a playlist for every mood, and even go-to songs for situations that we know will make us feel better. Healing effects of music have been accepted and considered since the time of the Greeks, and various other behavioural outcomes arising from music are continually studied in a modern lens.
A study also demonstrated music’s ability to make individuals feel emotionally supported and reduce loneliness, with comforting music seemingly uplifting mood as well as triggering empathy. However, music can also be used to intensify negative moods. According to a study on mood regulation with the help of music among individuals with depression, those diagnosed with the disorder had a tendency to listen to sad music that increased the effect of symptoms. This may be attributable to a ruminative coping style.
But what is it about these songs or musical pieces that gives rise to these emotions within us? How is it that listening to a few beats and melodies put together can bring forth a whole range of feelings, and sometimes even go as far as to completely change our mood?
Yehuda speculated that the limitlessness of music plays a part in its impact, illustrating this further with Lecourt’s description of the ‘sonorous experience’. Lecourt referred to sonority as being free of boundaries in space or time – which is true of music in the sense that it reaches us regardless of whether or not we want it to. Music is capable of enveloping individuals, and while this may make for a caring and calming environment, it can also give rise to aggression and hostility.
In recent years, extensive research has focused on the effect of music on peoples’ emotions and mood. According to a 2020 study by Alan S. Cowen et. al., who investigated the subjective experience upon listening to varying music among individuals from the United States of America and China, at least 13 different dimensions of emotions are associated with samples of music.
There are several factors to consider while understanding the influence on music on emotions. Theoretically, the affective component of music is often attributed to psychophysical cues taken from them. Predictable patterns in music may give rise to a feeling of alertness among us, and can often also give rise to physical responses such as tapping our feet or nodding our heads. Another such theoretical device often implicated is the ‘expectancy mechanism’. In several cases, we go into music hoping for or expecting a particular outcome – if someone asks you to DJ at a party, you probably already know which song is going to make everyone want to hit the dance floor. We may also realize that listening to a soothing melody can calm us down when we’re feeling anxious. Our anticipation of a change in our psychological stage can actually manifest that change.
Effects of neurotransmitters are considered to play a significant part in eliciting emotional responses upon listening to music. Pleasant music is found to release dopamine, serotonin, as well as endorphins, activating reward systems and leading to a feeling of pleasure.
Studies have also utilized brain imaging in order to further understand the emotional response of our nervous system to music. Different forms of music can bring about different electrical activity in the brain. While pleasant music can have calming effects, unpleasant music may trigger our defensive system. Varying research has indicated that training in music can be beneficial towards the development as well as the activation of the cortex, amygdala, and the hippocampus. Neural pathways that are responsible for the regulation of physiological responses to rewarding stimuli have also been found to mediate emotional response to music.
Endocrine-related changes have also been observed as a result of music. While music has been associated with the stimulation of oxytocin, it is also considered to have an effect on cortisol, which is considered to be vital in our body’s stress response. Calming music can help to combat elevated levels of stress.
The concept of ‘entrainment’ comes into play in understanding the ability of music to effectively reduce stress. Entrainment is considered to be the phenomenon wherein two bodies or objects that are moving at different rhythms or frequencies assume the same frequency through mutual resonance. Music has been observed to have this effect on heartbeat, breathing, as well as blood pressure. In order for music to have relaxing effects, the beats per minute of the musical piece should ideally be less than 80, and have soft, fluid harmonies without sudden changes in rhythm. This explains why listening to slow, soft, and repetitive music such as the Moonlight Sonata can have a relaxing effect on us when we’re anxious or nervous. The psychological effects of music on stress have also been explained in numerous other ways, such as through emotional valence, or felt happiness, which can reduce stress, as well as through creating effective distractions from stressful scenarios.
While different music can have varying effects on individuals, it’s safe to say that none of us are quite free from the hold that music has on us. It is much like any other tool: use it right, and it can be just what you need, but you must be careful, as it can be used in multiple ways. Whether it’s the catchy song that you haven’t been able to get out of your head, or the song you know by heart even when you haven’t listened to it in years, we’ve all experienced the emotionality that comes from music. So give it a thought – what song are you asking Google to play for you today?
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