Music influences people in various ways, it is present in every culture and plays a huge role in everyday life. It can be a source of inspiration, activation, passion, source of relaxation and imagination. According to some reports, the prevalence of some leisure activities, such as watching television or reading books has decreased compared to listening to music. Given that music holds a large place in people’s lives, it’s probably a very rewarding experience. People use music to change their emotions or show them, to align what they are listening to with their current emotions (ex. melancholy music of a slower rhythm when feeling down). Music is enjoyment and comfort, stress release. Furthermore, we can often hear others saying that they have “their” song. music seems to bind people together by giving them unique, but shared experiences. From that perspective, it can be said that music connects us, often binding certain emotional experiences to music that occupied our receptors in those moments. It would seem that the ability of music to provoke strong emotional experiences is the main reason behind our universal enjoyment of music.
Quick word on emotional experiences…
Emotions represent the meaning we give to what we feel in our body, that is, the meaning we give to physical arousal. unlike a mood, which is a long-term state, emotions are of short duration and within a day we can experience a whole range of emotional experiences and states, from happiness and euphoria, to jealousy, rage, and sadness. Psychologists view emotions as complex states consisting of various aspects that give us information about both ourselves and others. Therefore, in order to understand ourselves better, we need to be aware of our emotions. Specifically, what we need to be aware of is that each person perceives emotions in their own way, and there is no frame of reference that defines how and when some emotions will be felt. It could be said that it is all “in the eye of the beholder” as emotions are fuelled by our urges, innate dispositions, individual beliefs, and life experiences. It is also important to note that all emotions, even the unpleasant ones, are completely normal.
Given the intensity of emotions in everyday life, it’s no wonder that scientists have focused on the connection between music and emotions, since music can evoke a range of complex emotional states in a small amount of time. But, the ability of music to arouse strong emotions is wrapped in a mystery that has fascinated both experts, professionals and the simply curious since the days of Ancient Greece. How is it possible for sounds to have such power to be able to affect listeners so deeply?
How does music lead to emotions?
There are many explanations for how music causes emotional response, some of which will be presented here.
Some theories put the learning process into focus. According to one explanation, we are taught that a certain type of music gives rise to certain emotions. Notably, certain scenes in films are accompanied by similar musical patterns. When something happier is occurring, music of a higher tone, faster, and more energetic plays, as opposed to slower music in sad scenes, This exposure to certain musical patterns means that we connect the two together and, when we hear music that is more energetic and rhythmic, that gives rise to more pleasant emotional states. However, our experiences are also dependent on different everyday happenings, and since we do not all have the same things happen to us, we associate different music with different emotions than other people.
Some authors believe that emotional states stem from the listener’s comparison of music to expressive human gestures such as voice intonation or movements. For example, we are more active when we are happier, we talk and gesture more, and we feel sluggish and heavy when we are sad. In some studies, subjects were able to recognize emotional expressions only through walking. They judged that the person was happier and in a better mood when their steps were faster and livelier. Happy music is often times faster, more rhythmic, and high-pitched and it is possible to perceive it emotionally because it sounds like someone is moving in an emotional sense. On the other hand, some believe that when we hear music, we imagine a person conveying that music and liken them to a particular emotion, especially when is is not only instrumental music, but with vocal parts, too.
Finally, music is thought to influence the activation of certain systems in our body. Evidence suggests that music stimulates the expression of emotions and moods through directly affecting the autonomic nervous system and through the listener’s motor activity. These different mechanisms of emotional arousal often function simultaneously, producing strong and complex emotional states.
How can we describe exactly emotions caused by music?
Many researchers wonder if the arousal states caused by music are “real” emotions. That is, they consider emotions generated by music to have special characteristics compared to everyday emotions or emotions generated by other types of art. These ideas began to emerge as early as the 19th century. Initial research focused on the type of emotions music evokes and majorly contributed to the understanding of music-specific effects. The research showed that the usual categorization of emotions (e.g. classifications according to basic emotions – anger, sadness, fear, joy, surprise and disgust) cannot be fully used to describe emotional states caused by music. Modern research into “musical emotions” provides a much broader and more complex classification of emotions that emerge from music. Emotions such as anger, fear, disgust, guilt, etc. have a great function in adapting an individual to events that are potentially threatening to their physical and psychological integrity. But when listening to music, people tend to break away from their daily worries. It would seem that when people enter a mental state in which threats from the outside world cease to be relevant, negative emotions also weaken in intensity. For example, in everyday life we often experience sadness as an aversive state that we try to avoid. In contrast, people don’t usually turn off the radio because a sad song is playing. Based on this, it can be concluded that music-induced sadness does not have the same aversive component present in the everyday emotion of sadness. Levinson (1990) believes that once our emotions are isolated from the context of everyday situations and limited in duration as they are in music, then we can approach them as wine tasters of a sort. We can indulge in a certain emotion, feel it, and once the music is over, return to reality and our previous mood. We can then say we appreciate the value of an emotion itself and accept its effect on us. This metaphor can be equally applied to pleasant and unpleasant emotions.
As for feelings of happiness, some studies point to the experience of happiness in the true sense of the word, while others suggest that music-induced happiness had a form of bliss or enchantment and euphoria. Some have reported that a sense of bliss can further into transcendence, a feeling of overwhelming inspiration. This feeling could be equated with meditation and the awareness that we are a small part of a much larger world, that we are beyond the limits of ordinary experiences.
Taking all of the above into consideration, it seems that the emotions experienced by music are multi-layered and complex, and most of the time, interwoven between themselves. Due to this interweaving, it is hard ,even for the listeners themselves, to discern exactly what they feel while listening to a music piece. Thus, with bliss, feelings of love, tenderness and nostalgia can also pop up. In addition to nostalgia, peace and sentimentality can occur. With peace and relaxation, there can also be a sense of hope. With irritation, there may be anger and tension, and so on. The emotions caused by music can be very intense at times!
Positive effects of music on health
Regardless of the complexity of the emotions evoked by music, it has a positive effect on mental and physical health, and it is assumed that most of these positive effects come from the connection between music and emotions, from the way music influences emotions. It is believed that emotions can be regulated through music, particularly well when it comes to stress, as well as reducing anxiety and pain symptoms. According to different theories, in those cases, music play the role of a distractor, diverting the listener’s attention from negative to pleasant and encouraging thoughts. Music can capture the listener’s attention with something familiar and soothing that allows them escape. Besides that, music directly affects the nervous system of the listener, influences physiological changes, such as lowering heart rate and blood pressure, and reducing stress hormones. Slower and meditative music can also help you get to bed or relax before bed. Also, it is well known that music, especially classical music, has a beneficial effect of memory capacity and concentration. But, will music actually have a positive effect depends primarily on our own preferences, which are a product of our personality and the experience we’ve gained in life. Certain music styles will have a productive and stimulating effect on some while leaving others indifferent.
Every day we are exposed to a variety of emotional experiences stimulated by our surroundings!
Given the complexity of emotions that arise when listening to music, it seems that the emotional experiences of everyday life are greatly underestimated. Life is full of different experiences and types of art. While walking through the city, we can see different sculptures, buildings, and architecture, and are exposed to other aesthetic sights such as falling autumn leaves, blue vastness of the sea, laughter, the nostalgic smell of past days, birds’ song… It is possible that the emotions we experience through music are only part of a larger category of emotions felt during the aesthetic evaluation of everyday objects, situations, and experiences that occupy a large part of human life. So, on your next walk by the sea, become more aware of your surroundings, pay attention to the emotions you are experiencing, and put some good music on.
“Music is probably the one real magic I have encountered in my life. There’s not some trick involved with it. It’s pure and it’s real. It moves, it heals, it communicates and does all these incredible things.”
psychologist of the Healthy City of Porec