How Does Music Affect Our Emotions?
Music can make us feel intensely, eliciting a range of powerful emotional responses in listeners. It can also be a useful tool for processing our feelings when plunged into extreme emotional states like anger, depression, and loss.
People listen to music every day in order to regulate, enhance, and diminish undesirable emotional states like stress and fatigue. But why is this so? What is it about music that resonates so deeply with us?
Have you ever heard a song that give you the chills? This is because music affects the reward centres of our brains, stimulating the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and anticipation. Studies have shown that dopamine is released throughout the experience of listening, both at peak moments as well as in anticipation of those moments.
However, further studies have determined that this is not a universal experience. For the three to five percent of the population afflicted by a condition called musical anhedonia, listening to music is not a pleasurable activity, but is instead experienced as boring and distracting.
For others, listening to music is experienced as pleasurable for a number of reasons. By triggering the mechanism that causes us to anticipate things, we feel immense satisfaction when music fulfils or violates our expectations. Moreover, we tend to appreciate music that is less predictable and slightly more complex, responding positively to unexpected changes in intensity and tempo.
Music also affects and stimulates memory. We develop attachments to songs which we associate with particular moments in our lives, and when we hear those songs as adults, they can cause the emotions that we felt in those moments to come rushing back to us.
While music can help us to parse our individual emotions, it can also help us feel connected to others. Why do we listen to sad songs when we are feeling sad? We do so because we can relate to the emotions being expressed within. Identifying with the plight of the artist helps us to feel connected to someone else, to know that someone else felt what we feel now, in turn, making us feel less alone.
At times, our lives can feel extremely difficult to manage. Music can help us to motivate us by helping us to disengage from situations we find distressing and focus on the positive. It can also help us to regulate our moods when we find ourselves plunged within extreme emotional states.
Contrary to the moralizing stances taken by musicologists and politicians during the American Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s, a recent study by the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia has concluded that extreme forms of music like heavy metal and punk do not cause anger, as it has been claimed, but rather, helps individuals to process these feelings by sonically matching their intensity, thereby regulating sadness and enhancing positive emotions.
Leah Sharman, a student researcher on the project, comments that levels of hostility, irritability, and stress decreased after music was introduced, noting that the most significant change reported was the level of inspiration felt by the subjects.
Music can be a tremendous influence in our lives. It helps us not only to regulate our emotions, but continually pulls us back from the brink, inspiring us to always keep on the sunny side of life.
At the Niagara Conservatory of Music, we have witnessed the immense benefits of playing music on the mental health and emotional well-being of our students. For more information on the range of services that we offer, visit our website or contact us today!