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Soundtrack 2 the Mind: the Scientific Link Between Music and Mood

A mannequin head wearing headphones with vinyl records emerging from the top of the head. Pink background. Contemporary art with a retro music concept.
Shutterstock/Lagano.

Most avid listeners agree that music invokes powerful emotions and mood-altering effects, but do they understand why? Neuroscience and psychology offer an explanation.  

The psychology of music has been studied since ancient times. Plato of Ancient Greece theorized that different styles of music stirred different emotions in listeners. Now, thanks to modern science, music connoisseurs can truly understand the link between music and mood.

Music, the Body, and the Brain

Music has been found to influence 13 key emotions across cultures. Those include amusement, joy, eroticism, beauty, relaxation, sadness, dreaminess, triumph, tension, fear, annoyance, defiance, and high-energy.

Listening to music arouses emotions, memories, and physiological responses because of the way it interacts with the body and brain.

Listening to (or creating) music increases blood flow to brain regions that generate and control emotions. It activates the limbic system, which processes emotions and controls memories. Working hand in hand, emotions enhance memories.

Interestingly, physiological responses increase when listening to familiar music. When listening to familiar music, the brain releases dopamine in anticipation of the “best” parts of the song. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that triggers sensations of pleasure and well-being.

A brain with a smiley face on it, conveying emotions of happiness. Yellow background.
Listening to familiar songs releases dopamine in the brain.
Shutterstock/N Universe.

The more familiar the song, the more engaged the brain becomes, resulting in a greater dopamine “reward.” That is why your favorite songs most powerfully influence your emotions.

Listening to music also increases activity in the cerebellum, the area of the brain associated with movement, often encouraging listeners to dance. Dancing too releases endorphins in the brain, which promote comfort, relaxation, fun, and happiness.

Some scientists suspect that the effect of music on the physical body also has to do with frequencies. Sound waves are ultimately vibrations, and vibrations produced using low frequencies can be directly applied to the body.

Music therapy assists in the healing of a wide range of illnesses and conditions by improving motor function. It helps patients with stroke, Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, memory disorders, and epilepsy.

Because listening to music releases dopamine, music therapy also facilitates mental health and pain relief. Certain music can regulate mood, reduce stress, and promote calmness and positivity.

The pain-relieving tendencies of music can also be credited to its ability to distract. When the mind focuses on a melody, it becomes easier to ignore pain.

Using Music to Your Advantage

Understanding the neuroscience behind music makes it easier to use music to your advantage. It allows you to use music strategically to match your goals and needs.

For example, music helps with a multitude of tasks besides facilitating mental and physical health, such as sleeping and focusing.

Relaxing music induces sleep by decreasing heart rate, blood pressure, and nervous system activity. It distracts you from any worries that may be keeping you awake and pulls attention away from background noises. Songs ranging from 60-80 beats per minute are most recommended for inducing sleep.

A man listening to music while meditating in the lotus pose. Appears to be in a good mood. Purple background.
Music helps with tasks like sleeping, focusing, and studying.
Shutterstock/Roman Samborskyi.

Music also aids concentration. Motivating and inspirational songs help you get “into the zone” and achieve a “flow state” while working. Furthermore, music activates both sides of the brain, which maximizes learning and improves memory.

Music preferred by the listener is most effective at promoting concentration, though certain genres are recommended for studying. National University recommends ambient music, such as classical, electronic, lo-fi hip hop, jazz, or even nature sounds.

Modern Music: A New Generation of Listening Habits

For centuries, music was only able to be experienced live. Even as mixtapes, CD’s, Walkman’s, and iPods became popular, music was still inherently pre-selected. With the invention of smartphones, streaming services, and social media came a true turning point in how music is consumed.

These days, the power of music lies directly in listeners’ hands. Listeners can now enjoy any music of their choosing, anyplace, any time of the day thanks to modern technology. This allows for a more personal connection with music, and grants listeners more control over its influence.

Considering music’s influence on the mind and body, an increase in the ability to control listening habits proves beneficial. Understanding how to use music to regulate emotions is especially important for younger people, who spend a large portion of their day listening to music.

In recent years, AI and algorithms have also lent a hand in the further regulation of listening habits. AI tracks listening activity and compiles playlists to match and enhance moods. Together, AI and biodata can also predict new music listeners may enjoy in the future.

Assorted music apps on an iPhone screen.
Smartphones and streaming apps have revolutionized the way people listen to music. Shutterstock/Tada Images.

Modern technology also proves sufficient in keeping music fans out of “listening ruts.” Streaming services, such as Spotify, offer thousands of genres and provide listeners with a constant stream of both new and familiar music using the help of AI.

The Final Note

The power of music can be used to relax, improve sleep, and reduce pain. It can also be used to elevate mood, enhance focus, boost memory, and express yourself.

With a better understanding of the scientific links between music, mood, and well-being, and thanks to modern technology, you can use music to your advantage. Instead of using music to simply suit your moods, you can use it to mindfully regulate your emotions.

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