Psychology Of Music: All Your Questions Answered
Music is an incredibly powerful tool. From being a source of great controversy to bringing together entire nations, it’s as old as humankind itself. What became as a simple melody to pass the time during hard labor has now turned into a trillion-dollar industry.
You rarely find someone who doesn’t enjoy music. It stimulates one‘s brain, releases and influences one’s moods, and is full of emotions ranging all the way from happiness to rage, making it perfect for anyone regardless of their mental state at the moment. In this article, we’re going to answer some of the most frequent questions related to the psychology and science of music.
Why the more we listen to a certain song, the more we like it?
Have you ever had a song you didn’t really like at first, but the more you listened to it, the more it grew on you? Well, this is a result of a concept called cognitive ease. By listening to a song on repeat, our brain develops a false sense of familiarity to it, thus making it feel more pleasant the more we familiarize ourselves with the patterns of the song.
Of course, as is often the case with psychology, all of this happens in our subconscious. That’s why some of us prefer to put on the same playlist over and over again – the sense of ease, familiarity and effortlessness is what feels good for our brain. The same holds true for songs you used to hate but now enjoy. Since the songs were unfamiliar and featured patterns your brain wasn’t accustomed to, it found it hard to „like“ the song.
A good example of a genre utilizing cognitive ease is reggaeton. Its beats usually feature the same rhythm, creating a sense of familiarity and ease for the brains of reggaeton fans. Speaking of Latin music, let’s discuss another phenomenon: symbolism of sound.
Why do we like to listen to songs we don’t understand the lyrics of?
The magic of listening to foreign songs comes from something called sound symbolism. For us, foreigners to a certain language, it is the various sounds (not words) and their combination that are the main deciding factor of whether we like the song or not. This decision, however, is a combination of multiple other factors, scale of the song being one of them.
All songs are divided into two categories, depending on which key the song is in: minor and major scale. Minor scale songs, such as Ed Sheeran’s I See Fire, usually evoke sadder feelings, whereas major scale ones, like Cindy Lauper’s Time After Time, make you feel nostalgic and happy. All of this plays a big role with foreign songs, as the concept of drawing meaning from the lyrics is fully eliminated.
Quick tip: have a look at this video to see how much the mood of Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On changes once transposed to a minor scale. The difference is staggering!
Another reason why we like music we don’t understand the lyrics of is that it doesn’t take away from our own thought process. If you’re a native English speaker, whether you like it or not, the words enter your brain subconsciously even if it’s just background music. With foreign music, we are essentially free to create our own meaning to the song. The song represents whatever we need it to, and whatever meaning we come up with based on the melody and atmosphere is true. That is, of course, until we look up the lyric translation…
Why does the music we loved as teenagers hit so hard years later?
Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Whether it’s familiar smells, faces, places or, you guessed it, music, there are certain aspects that have the ability to bring back old memories in a split of a second. If you ever wondered what the science behind this phenomenon is, here’s your answer…
Whenever we stumble upon a familiar song we used to love, just like with smoking, eating sugar or playing casino games, the pleasure center of the brain is stimulated. As a result, multiple neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin are released. Following basic logic, the dearer the song was to us in the past, the higher the release of neurotransmitters, hence the deeper our sense of nostalgia. This is especially true for music from our teenage years, which gets carved deep into our subconscious due to the development stage we were in at the time.
What is it about festivals?
If you’ve ever been to a music festival, you know how transcendent the experience feels. Especially if you’ve attended one of the big international ones. But what is it about festivals? What makes them so unique? As always, the answer draws from psychology.
Festivals implicitly evoke a sense of belonging to a group, which essentially gives a sense of meaning to our lives. They create a shared experience, a feeling of being a part of “something bigger”, and if you ever found yourself in the middle of the pit shouting out lyrics to your favorite song with thousands of strangers all around you, you know what we’re talking about.
By being at the same venue as the performers (and at the same time!), we feel like we’re sharing the experience with the performer whose show we’re watching. We subconsciously think that the performer feels the way we do, making not only the moment, but also us, feel special. Being so close to people whose faces we’ve only seen from our phones or TVs creates a thrill of massive proportions.
But that’s not all. For some, escapism might be the most fitting answer to our burning question. Escaping the ordinary, the normal, the boring, the routine, creates a unique sense of freedom, which is, for example, the main tagline of Hungary’s Sziget festival.
From a psychological point of view, festivals are also a common place for inspiration or the establishment of one’s identity. Moreover, free expression as well as exploration of self have proven to be one of the key points for the generational appeal to festivals.
Is music therapy actually a thing?
As we’re slowly starting to finally get out of the coronavirus cycle, music was one of the few things that kept many of us going through the hard lockdowns. According to neuroscience and various brain scans, whenever we hear a song, multiple parts of our brain are engaged. This includes the amygdala, hippocampus, and frontal and temporal lobes to name a few. Moreover, studies have shown that music has a direct effect on brain structure and brain function. With new research being rolled out every year, it seems that music therapy is indeed a sensible and effective technique in dealing with one’s trauma.
That being said, it should always be seen as a complimentary tool in combination with other traditional methods. For example, in case of cancer treatments, there are several centers that now include different types of music programs as part of the treatment, and music was found to increase levels of hope, strength and motivation not only for areas such as exercise, but also surgery, irreversible diseases, depression, and more.
Image Credit: Lovefreund