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Understanding the Psychology of Music

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

Music is a powerful tool to unite people from all walks of life. But have you ever wondered how it affects your brain? Read on to hear about the psychology of music and how music has more impact than you may think.

Five Benefits of Music

Whether you like to listen to music for a mid-day pump-up, to distract yourself from the bustling world, or to hone in on a task, music has countless benefits.

Improve Your Mood

Music has a universal appeal of regulating our mood. Whether we want to feel happy, sad, or chilled out, there’s a song for everything. One study found that intentionally trying to boost one’s mood with music was impactful after only two weeks.

In fact, music therapy is an effective treatment for mood disorders related to neurological conditions such as dementia, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease.

Reduce Stress

In a recent study, music was more effective to reduce anxiety, by producing less cortisol, than taking prescription drugs before surgery. This study also found evidence that music increases the creation of immunoglobulin A, cells that attack viruses and boost the body’s immune system.

Additionally, discovered in the 2013 Study at Beth Israel Medical Center’s Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine, music proved that it was able to slow a baby’s heart rate. If you’re looking to destress, opt for a 60 beats per minute song. Researchers say that this is the optimal tempo for alpha brainwaves to flow, signaling a relaxed mind.

Improve Memory

Next time you need to memorize something, throw on some classical music. In one study, participants read and had to recall short lists of words. Participants who listened to classical music did better than those who worked in silence or had white noise. In the same study, classical music also helped the speed and accuracy with which participants could complete tasks.

Boost Exercise Performance

Nothing beats listening to your go-to hype song as you walk into the gym, ready to crush a workout. When you listen to music during physical activity, it has “ergogenic” effects, which enhance your workout.

Ever notice how you can’t feel how hard you’re working until you take your headphones out? There’s science behind that. Music delays fatigue and lessens the perception of fatigue. Music also activates the left inferior frontal gyrus part of the brain; the more the region is activated, the less tired the participant felt.

Improve Sleep

While an extra cup of coffee might sound like a great idea at 6 pm… not so much by the time it’s bedtime. In a study focused on college students, researchers found that participants that listened to music had “significantly better sleep quality than those who listened to an audiobook or received no intervention.” Next time you need to catch some z’s, give Beethoven or Mozart a try.

Woman listening to music

Why Do We Like What We Listen To

Ever wonder why you have your music taste? Personality and music taste have long been linked, and a recent study, Linking Music Listening on Spotify and Personality, found that music can reflect the Big Five personality traits the same or better than personality studies. Music taste can detect Emotional Stability and Conscientiousness best.

Unsurprisingly during this study, those who elected to listen to Discover Weekly identified themselves as more “open to new experiences.” Self-identified extroverts opted to listen more to others’ playlists, while self-identified introverts went on a deep dive into artists, listening to more songs per artist.

What’s interesting is that even with our various listening experiences, and even some of us who have an ear for music, on balance, we hear music in similar ways. A study from the European Journal of Neuroscience found that while listening, there were similar brain activity patterns amongst participants, and music synchronized brain responses across participants. There was more synchronization in the right-hemisphere fronto-parietal network, where our working memory, ability to focus attention, and ability to create and change plans lie. Maybe we’re more on the same wavelength than we thought.

Music speakers

Impact of Music on the Brain

Music improves our mood, reduces stress, and is even connected to our personality type. But, have you ever wondered how music directly impacts our brain and why it might be making a difference in how we think?

Why Lo-Fi is Good for Studying

Over the past year, many have cited losing focus and burnout as the reasons for lower productivity while working or attending school from home. If you’re trying to channel that flow-like state where time melts away and suddenly you’re finished with the task you were dreading, try Lo-Fi music.

Lo-fi stands for low fidelity; it is the production or reproduction of audio characterized by unpolished or rough sound quality. It’s all the rage on YouTube streams, Spotify playlists, and productivity hack websites. But why does it work?

Victor Szabo, an assistant professor of Music at Hampden-Sydney College, studies ambient music. Because lo-fi usually has looped sounds throughout, “the listener can turn their attention away from the sound and toward other things without being surprised or thrown off,” he said. Ambient music “has a sort of cocooning effect.” This “cocooning” effect gives the brain enough attentional stimulation without distracting from the task.

Perhaps lo-fi is the productivity solution we’ve all been craving. Check out Lofi Girl, the most popular lo-fi YouTube channel with over 8 million subscribers and constant lo-fi live streams. Spotify also has countless lo-fi playlists to enjoy.

Why Sad Music Can Make You Feel Better

You read that right. A study from Freie Universität Berlin found that sad music can make a miserable person feel better after a breakup. Sad songs make us experience four different cognitive rewards of sadness一imagination, emotion regulation, empathy, and no “real-life” implications. You get to feel the artist’s sadness without actually having to experience the implications of that sadness.

The emotion most evoked from sad songs was not sadness itself, but rather, nostalgia. So, next time you're sad, get in your feels instead of avoiding them一it’s cathartic!

Why Songs can Evoke Intense Memories

You’re walking around the grocery store, searching for the sexiest avocado, when all of the sudden you’re transported back to elementary school summer camp because of the throwback over the loudspeaker. Music can evoke intense memories, emotions, and even smells and certain feelings.

It’s all in the emotions. Dr. Kelly Jakubowski, a music psychologist and an assistant professor at Durham University's Department of Music states that “music often accompanies emotional events.” Because “the events in and of themselves are quite emotional to begin with and then we also have the music itself, which in and of itself is an emotional thing … There does seem to be this mood congruency."

Retrieving information, including memories, from your brain is not always easy. When the memory is created, an emotion and a song are unified in the medial prefrontal cortex. Music can help retrieve these memories because of its melody, the imagery of the words, the structure of the song, etc. Essentially, music can act as the key to unlock memories.

Besides being entertaining, music has a multitude of impacts on one’s everyday life. Next time you listen to music, think about all the benefits you will reap! What music or genre makes the biggest impact on your mood? Share your favorites in the Bopdrop app!

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