Music: How it affects your brain, changes your mood and helps you focus
The music we choose to listen to can have a profound effect on our emotions and behaviour, but how and why?
Music is an integral part of our lives. We carry it in our pockets and blast it from the rooftops. It’s the stuff that memories are made of, soundtracking our weddings, funerals and first kisses.
But it has an even greater effect than you might imagine, from alleviating stress and depression to helping us bond with others and boosting IQ scores.
Does music really have the power to affect our well-being?
Your body contains its own ‘pharmacy’ for dispensing an array of chemicals to help you respond to different situations: calming you down when you need to sleep, or putting you on alert if you’re in danger.
If your pharmaceutical system is working properly, the correct chemicals will be dispensed at the appropriate times. If a dog starts chasing you, for example, your internal pharmacist will hand out a shot of adrenaline and a dose of cortisol.
The adrenaline will get you ready to run or fight by increasing the oxygen supply to your muscles, directing more blood to your heart and lungs, and releasing extra glucose into your system.
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- Music therapy: The power of music for health
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The cortisol reaction will further amplify the adrenaline’s effects, increasing your blood sugar levels and concentrating energy supplies to your arms and legs. These effects are useful during short-lived ‘fight-or-flight’ events, but are not good for you over an extended period of time.
If you lead a busy, stressed life, you might become depressed or physically run-down because your inner pharmacist is constantly doling out adrenaline and cortisol – even in non-threatening situations.
This is where music can help. Listening to calming music has been shown to diminish the adrenaline and cortisol levels in the bloodstream and therefore reduce stress. Researchers at the University of Toronto have even shown that this is true of distressed babies.
On top of this, the fact that music is pleasurable tells the internal pharmacist to start handing out chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, which will improve your mood and help to banish the stress and depression.
How else can music help?
Music has also been shown to cure insomnia. In a study involving young adult insomniacs in Budapest in 2007, over 80 per cent of the participants became better sleepers after three weeks of listening to classical music at bedtime.
In a similar investigation involving Taiwanese insomniacs aged over 60, half of the participants were transformed into good sleepers within a few weeks. It normally takes an adult between 10 and 35 minutes to drop off to sleep. If you’re having trouble drifting off, you could make your own playlist.
Choose about 45 minutes of slow, calming music, and make sure the final track fades out gradually, otherwise the abrupt silence at the end will wake you up! One of our survival instincts is to wake up if things go suddenly quiet.
How does music manipulate our emotions?
The world of film offers obvious examples of music manipulating our emotions. If the action on the screen is emotionally neutral (a woman walking down a street) the music can tip us off that something frightening or happy is about to happen.
If the director wants to make you jump with fright, a sudden loud noise (or musical sound) is very effective in triggering your fight-or-flight response, which will flood your system with adrenaline and cortisol.
Your brain subconsciously assumes that you’re in danger because we have evolved to associate any unexpected noise (even music) with a possible threat. This is why the ‘eee! eee! eee!’ shower scene music in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is so terrifying.
The job of a film’s music composer is to manipulate your emotions without making the music too obtrusive. One effective way of amplifying the emotional impact of a visual event is to precede the climax of the scene with inappropriate music.
If a father is searching for his daughter, we feel much more relief when she’s found safe and sound if the searching scene was accompanied by creepy, menacing music.
Similarly, we are a lot more horrified if, after a search accompanied by cheerful music, we are presented with a bloodstained body and a loud, anguished chord.
Does it help to listen to music while exercising?
Yes – gym-based studies have shown that music encourages people to increase their pace to match the pulse of the music, and the pleasure of listening helps them to stay on the equipment for longer.
Music also alleviates boredom and helps runners to focus their attention away from pain or discomfort. In fact, the effect is so great that the USA Track and Field’s competition rules ban runners from using portable listening devices if awards or prizes are involved.
And, of course, it’s never a good idea to be wearing headphones if you’re running close to busy roads.
How about listening to music while working?
The possible link between music and concentration has been the subject of much research – it’s of interest to everyone from call centre managers to students trying to finish an essay.
These investigations have shown that music can help if the alternative sound is a distracting noise. If you’re trying to finish that report in a busy cafe, then music through headphones will help keep you focused.
If, on the other hand, you’re working in a quiet environment, the music itself will be a distraction.
Part of your brainpower will be taken up processing the music, leaving less capacity for the work you’re trying to do. Music with lyrics is particularly distracting.
The situation is a little different if you’re performing a simple task such as ironing or washing up.
In this case, you’ll have plenty of spare mental capacity available, and the music will help keep you in a good mood and prevent you from getting bored, probably improving your performance on the task in hand.
Can music really affect our behaviour?
Yes. Take, for instance, the background music that’s often played in shops and restaurants. This can have a surprisingly powerful influence on how we behave.
Working in the 1980s, US marketing professor Ronald Milliman discovered that slow, relaxing music in a restaurant actually makes you eat more slowly and increases the amount you spend on drinks during the meal.
The tempo of the music also has an effect on how quickly you walk around a shop or supermarket – you tend to browse and buy more if the music is calming and relaxed.
Surprisingly, the choice of background music can even influence which items you buy. One test, carried out by psychologists at the University of Leicester in 1999, involved changing the background music near a display of German and French wines in a supermarket.
The German wine sold twice as fast if stereotypically German music was playing. However, when French accordion music was being piped out, the French wine was five times more popular than the German.
Other research in this area has shown that the correct choice of background music can increase the income of a shop or restaurant by 10 per cent – a surprisingly large effect for something that many of us barely notice. Another indication of the power of background music is something known as the ‘Manilow method’.
In 2006, Sydney’s city council was trying to work out how to disperse the groups of teenagers who were hanging out in the shopping malls.
Simply asking them to ‘move on’ had no effect – but eventually someone had the idea of playing music that the teenagers would find embarrassingly uncool. Barry Manilow to the rescue!
By the time a few tracks of his Greatest Hits had filtered through the public address system, the teenagers had wandered off to find somewhere cooler to hang out.
Why did music evolve in the first place?
Music is ancient and extends throughout all societies around the world, so it probably has links to the survival of our species.
As any football fan will tell you, communal singing can help form a more cohesive social group.
This bonding effect is a strong contender for why music exists – in prehistoric times, groups who sang together would protect each other more tenaciously from predators or enemies.
What’s more, music has been found to aid the release of the hormone oxytocin.
This hormone is also released during breastfeeding and sexual intercourse, and may have a powerful bonding effect.
Where’s the most unlikely place that music is used?
Forget popping a paracetamol – music has also found an unlikely use as a form of pain relief. One of the experiments that researchers use to test people’s responses to pain involves asking subjects to keep their hands in freezing cold water for as long as possible.
Psychologists Laura Mitchell and Raymond MacDonald have found that listening to music helps people to stand the pain for longer – and is particularly effective if the subjects choose the music themselves.
Read more about the effect of music:
- Nine unexpected effects of music on animals
- Space music: 10 of the best songs about space
- Why do people have such different music tastes?
- Can you train your brain to like different music?
- Why does listening to music do nothing for me?
This choice gave the participants a feeling of empowerment, which helped them to cope with discomfort for longer. The concept of pain reduction through empowerment has also been shown to reduce discomfort during dental treatment.
The patients felt less pain if they chose the music – especially if they were given a handheld volume controller. Intriguingly, the best results happened when the patient was specifically told that their control over the music would reduce the pain.
Can music make us more intelligent?
Back in 1993, US psychologist Dr Frances Rauscher and her colleagues published a paper which gave birth to the so-called ‘Mozart effect’. In this study, students were given a spatial reasoning IQ test, before which they had either sat in silence for 10 minutes, listened to relaxation instructions, or heard a Mozart piano piece.
The researchers found that those who tuned in to the piano piece had noticeably higher scores than the other two groups.
The implication that listening to Mozart’s music makes you more intelligent was widely covered in the press, and soon the music industry was generating Mozart CDs aimed at improving the IQs of everyone from babies to pensioners.
Psychologists set to work investigating whether the Mozart effect really exists, and by 2010 it was concluded that it did – but it had nothing to do with Mozart.
Various psychologists, including Prof E Glenn Schellenberg and his team at the University of Toronto, have proved that your score in an IQ test can be improved simply by listening to any stimulating music you enjoy (Schubert and Blur worked just as well as Mozart).
A similar result could even be achieved by listening to a Stephen King short story. The effect works by raising the level of a neurotransmitter in your brain called norepinephrine, which increases alertness.
On top of this, enjoyable music boosts dopamine, helping put you in a buoyant and confident mood. So, the next time you’re about to take an exam, try listening to 10 minutes of your favourite upbeat music before you go in – but wear your lucky socks, too, just in case.
- This article first appeared in issue 297 of BBC Focus Magazine - find out how to subscribe here
This chemical triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response.
It causes your air passages to dilate so you can get more oxygen into your system, and directs blood to the major muscle groups.
This is another fight-or-flight chemical and backs up the adrenaline response.
It also damps down your body’s response to injuries (so you can keep running or fighting even when hurt).
This neurotransmitter is responsible for your ability to focus and get things done. It also acts as a ‘good mood’ chemical.
These chemicals communicate information throughout your brain and body.
They tell your heart to beat, they control muscles and senses, but also influence your mood.
A neurotransmitter that’s involved in regulating appetite, sleep, memory and mood.
The Mozart effect
This is a controversial idea that suggests that listening to classical music can boost your intelligence or a child’s mental development.