The Brain on Music

Topics: Music, Psychology, Emotion Pages: 5 (1218 words) Published: April 23, 2014
Psychology of Music
Music is a form of art that utilizes sound and silence. People listen to music every day as a means of filling in silence or passing time. It may seem as though music and science exist in two separate planes; one of beauty and emotions, and the other of logic and reason. In recent years however, studies have found that music has a profound effect on the mind and human psychology. Music affects many different areas of the brain, and plays a vital role brain function as well as our lives.

Music exists in every culture, and seems to be a part of much of our biological heritage. Previous texts on music and emotion have focused on the emotional responses of an individual when he or she was exposed to music; however it is much more that that; it can be seen as a very social attribute to our humanity. Consider social events such as weddings, birthdays, and graduations, as well as social settings such as clubs, pubs, and festivals. The influence of a social setting on the emotional responses to music needs to be considered. Research has largely ignored the influence of social factors on emotions, which is unfortunate because music is associated with many social aspects of everyday life. Empirical studies show support for a social bonding hypothesis, in which joint musical activities can improve pro-social and cooperative behavior.

Music also heavily influences the fluctuation of human emotions. Emotions, according to Scherer’s Component Process Model (2004), are triggered by a cognitive evaluation process that possesses three components: physiological arousal, motor expression, and subjective feelings. We can usually sense the tone of a piece of music, note if it is particularly happy or sad. This is not just a subjective idea that comes from how music makes us ‘feel’; our brains actually respond differently to ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ music. A study conducted by Nidhya Logeswaran and Joydeep Bhattacharya of the University of London (2009) showed that after hearing a short piece of music, participants were more likely to interpret a neutral expression as happy or sad, to match the tone of the music they heard.

Studies have shown that music can improve the attention span and strength of an individual. In 2007, a research team from the Stanford University School of Medicine gained valuable insight to how the brain sorts out all the external stimulus of the environment around it. Using brain images of people listening to short symphonies by random 18th century composers, the team showed that music engages the areas of the brain involved in paying attention, making predictions, and updating memory. What was interesting was that peak brain activity occurred during short periods of silence between musical movements, when nothing was happening.

The team used music to help study the brain’s attempt to make sense of the continual flow of information the real world generates, a process called ‘event segmentation’. The brain breaks down information into meaningful segments by extracting information about beginnings, endings, and boundaries between events. The researchers concluded that the changes in brain activity seen in the MRI scans reflected the brain’s evolving responses to different phases of a symphony. The study suggests one possible adaptive evolutionary purpose of music: music enlarges the brain over a period of time, and the process of listening to music could be a way the brain sharpens its ability to anticipate events and sustain attention.

This aspect of music also helps develop the motivational drivers, which not only benefits attention but also motivation. Research on the effects of music during exercise has been done for years. In 1911, American researcher Leonard Ayres found that cyclists pedaled faster while listening to music than they did in silence. This happens because listening to music activates selective motivation, which in turn drowns out the brain’s cries of fatigue. When the body...


Bibliography: 1. Blood, A. J. & Zatorre, R. J. (2001). Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98(20),11818-11823.
2. Gabrielsson, A. & Lindstrom Wik, S. (2003). Strong experiences related to music: A descriptive system Musicae Scientiae, 7(2)157-217.
3. Salimpoor, V. N., Benovoy, M., Longo, G., Cooperstock, J. R., & Zatorre, R. J. (2009). The rewarding aspects of music listening are related to degree of emotional arousal. PloS one, 4(10), e7487.
4. Egermann, H., Sutherland, M. E., Grewe, O., Nagel, F., Kopiez, R., & Altenmüller, E. (2011). Does music listening in a social context alter experience? A physiological and psychological perspective on emotion. Muicae Scientiae, 15(3), 307-323.
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