A person lying on their back with their foot resting on a vintage radio

More Than Background Noise: The Link Between Music & Emotion

While I wait for my laptop to start up for work this morning, I automatically start scrolling through YouTube for an ambient music playlist to accompany my work day. I’ve done this for years, at least since middle high school; deliberately using music to help improve everyday moments, from enhancing concentration and productivity, to managing my mood.

I know I’m not alone in this. Music is one of those quietly constant factors that we often don’t even notice, but has been a central part of the human experience for literally thousands of years (a 42 000 year old flute found in 2012 is thought to be one of the oldest refined tools ever discovered). Music is integral to our lives; it plays in restaurants and cafes when we socialise with loved ones, when we celebrate important events like weddings, birthdays, and funerals. It’s used in movies to help enhance our connection the story, and the anthems of our faith, nationality, or football team instantly bring together groups of otherwise disconnected people. Music can help stroke victims learn to talk again, and even help those with Parkinson’s disease dance.

Music can uplift and comfort, but it can also only take a few bars of a song we associate with a painful time in our past to bring our mood crashing back down. So how does music influence our emotions, and how can we use this to improve our emotional wellbeing?

Music is hardwired into our brain’s emotion systems

There are many factors related to how a piece of music impacts our emotions. Consider how you feel listening to a piece of music depending on:

  • Instrument type: the difference between a soft harp, and a snare drum (strings are thought to be particularly linked to emotion due to their similarity to the human vocal range)
  • Rhythm: a fast-paced dance track, vs a slow lullaby
  • Pitch: a screeching violin (think Psycho), vs a low-pitched orchestra (think Jaws)
  • Expectations: waiting for the ‘drop’ in a building dance track, compared to your confusion when a drummer misses a beat
  • Familiarity: hearing a song for the first time, vs. that ad jingle that’s been stuck in your head for the last 4 hours!

Due to the way music is processed in the brain, each of these factors impacts brain activation. But more than this, music is strongly linked to our memories and identity. I have several songs that immediately, as soon as I hear them, take me back to another time in my life. Often, it’s with a sense of wistful nostalgia for the person I was then, and I think this is part of the temptation of returning to old favourites. We access memories of a different time as a way of coping with the present, and music is an effective way of facilitating this.

Research has also found that we return in particular to the music we loved as teenagers. This period of our life is filled with brain changes that increase our connection to the music we loved, and this association can last a lifetime. This is also the reason each generation tends to think that their music was the best!

Music can be used to directly influence our emotions

You only need to scroll through Spotify’s ‘Moods’ playlists to see the number of ways in which we deliberately consume music. It has been well documented that the majority of the time, we listen to music to regulate our emotions. This includes:

  • Improve mood: This one is obvious; we listen to things to make us happier or to boost our mood. Whether it’s feel-good 80s hits or songs that make you feel confident, listening in this context is all about feeling better.
  • Seek solace: On the flipside, sometimes when we’re sad, there is great value in just sitting in sadness. Seeking solace in music is about expressing our pain and feeling less alone. Even if we’re physically alone, we can feel connected to the artist who stretches out through time and space to reflect our sadness. A quick Google search will reveal hundreds of playlists for this purpose, but for myself, Adele’s powerful vocals always come to mind first.
  • Relaxation: If you’ve ever been for a massage or to a yoga class, there is often quiet music playing in the background. Slower, softer sounds often increase feelings of relaxation, and can be deliberately played, for example before bed, to help accelerate relaxation. Music has also found to be effective at relieving anxiety and even reducing pain, so next time you need to go to the dentist, take some headphones!

Music can also be used to indirectly influence our emotions

Beyond actively modifying our mood, music can also be used to make other tasks easier, thus reducing our stress levels. This includes:

  • Improving concentration: As anyone who has ever had music playing quietly while studying or working can attest, music can improve our focus by blocking out distractions and keeping us alert. The multi-regional brain activation associated with music listening can also improve memory and learning.
  • Background noise: This one comes in two forms; using music to companionably fill the background silence, or to make dull tasks more interesting (anyone else have a go-to playlist for driving or housework?).

Music can also be used to provide intellectual stimulation. As we age out of our teen years, it’s more common to enjoy listening to music for sheer aesthetic appreciation (rather than to directly shift our emotional states). This is about engaging with the music intellectually, whether that’s the cleverness of the lyrics, or complexity of the music itself. Classical music is the stereotype for this, but any genre can be appreciated in this way. Many modern musicians deliberately build complex structures into their music for people to appreciate, for example, the use of the Fibonacci sequence in Tool’s song Lateralus.

How to use music effectively

While music can be used for a range of beneficial purposes, sometimes our music listening choices can actually make us feel worse. So how can we reap the rewards without the risk?

  • Know the music that works for you, and use it appropriately. If you have songs that remind you of a painful time of your life or bring you down, make sure they’re not going to pop up at an unhelpful time like the middle of your commute to work.
  • Cultivate awareness, and know the difference between seeking solace, and getting trapped in wallowing. Seeking solace in music feels comforting, like you’re not alone. In comparison, getting trapped in wallowing is when you feel yourself sinking further into sadness; some describe it as a sense of ‘spiralling’. When you feel that, it’s time to change to a more neutral genre.
  • Don’t judge a book by its cover. Music is exceptionally personal, and what you find uplifting, or, conversely, devastatingly sad, may not be the same as someone else. Don’t judge yourself or anyone else for preferences and how the music affects you, just use what works for you.
  • Don’t just listen to music, make it! While listening to music has many benefits, these are often enhanced by the act of making music itself (and you don’t even need to be good at it!). Singing, for example, has a large number of physical and psychological benefits, particularly in groups.

Regardless of whether you count yourself a great lover of music or not, music is a constant and powerful force in our lives. So crank up the tunes, and next time you’re in the shower, don’t be afraid to belt out that power ballad!

More can be read on the complex relationship between the brain, emotions and music, in Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, and Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music. More can be read on the ‘sadness paradox’, or how sad music can make us happier, here.