How does music affect our feelings?

What happens in our brain when we listen to music? Does music affect our feelings and does it let us experience different moods?

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“When we sing, we dispel our worries. We are happy. Like a free bird in the sky. When we think about it, we have something in common, we are born to sing.” The Brazilians Chitãozinho and Xororó, claim this in one of their songs. But is it possible to proof that music can affect our emotions?

What happens in our brain, when we listen to music? Does music affect our emotions and does it let us experience different moods? To answer these questions, alugha talked to Professor Eckart Altenmüller, director of the “Institut für Musikphysiologie und Musiker-Medizin an der Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien” in Hannover. He deals with the sensorimotor system of playing music, with diseases of musicians, and with emotional music processing.

Music can sound happy or sad, everyone agrees on that. But there is contention over whether music truly evokes emotions. 

Cognitive Position

There are two positions in music psychology. A distinction is made between a cognitive position and an emotivist position. Researchers who support the cognitive position argue that happy or sad music can’t affect the listener’s emotions. Rather, the listener classifies music into these categories while he is listening to it.

Although Altenmüller explains that evaluating music like that can elicit emotions. For example, a boring and inaccurate playback of music that is usually classified as happy by a music enthusiast can elicit emotions of anger, frustration and grief when he compares the new playback with the interpretation he saved and deemed appropriate.

Emotivist Position

On the other hand, researchers who support the emotivist position argue that music elicits emotions directly. An extreme example is startle responses, which are transferred via a hard-wired neuronal network of the brain stem, to unexpected, very dissonant and loud sounds. Strong emotions can also be elicited from the link between music and important life events. The researchers also discuss the build-up, fulfillment and deception of musical expectations as a trigger of emotions while listening to music.

The Reward Centers of the Brain

There are many things that give us a thrill of happiness. Especially when something ends up better than expected. In his book “Sweet Anticipation”, David Huron describes a certain emotional satisfaction that takes place when expectations are met.

However, these expectations are often deceived when it comes to music. For example an emotional effect in the form of goosebumps can be caused by a harmonic change, a special tone color, the entry of a new instrument or sudden silence.

This reaction is linked to the activation of the brain’s reward centers. When playing or hearing music, endorphins are released. Endorphins are the body’s own happiness hormones, which are also released when people eat, do sports, have sex or take drugs.

Genetic Makeup of Humans

Music moves us because it is part of our genetic makeup. Over the last millennia, music has been refined endlessly, however, in its core it still remained an ancient effective communication system with numerous positive effects for the people.

Music provides a playground for new hearing experiences, it fosters the synchronization of groups, group cohesiveness, the bond between mother and child, and language acquisition. Besides, music increases our well-being and it can elicit a feeling happiness sometimes.


Learning through music

There’s one more thing you can do pretty well and “easily” with music, and that’s learning a language. Imagine you love a song and you know the lyrics by heart, you know every syllable, every word...and then you suddenly change the language and you listen to the song in a foreign language instead of your language. What happens now? A song elicits emotions and is often linked to a special memory. You “understand” what is sung in the other language, and when you listen to the song again and again you learn the meaning of the words. You can directly give it a try with the many music videos we have on alugha.

There are very interesting studies on the prevention of alzheimer’s and in them games such as sudoku or math games don’t come off well. On the other hand, learning a foreign language comes off very well. It’s a huge challenge for our brain and also helps keeping it fit.

It’s never too late to start making music, or learning an instrument or a new language. There are plenty of reasons to do it!





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