‘How Music Works’

In the time since the last post (admittedly ample), I have read the book How Music Works by John Powell. Though I focused more on the parts relating to the connection between the psychology of music, the book also delves into the general science of music. This is generally regarding wavelengths of sounds, such as what distinguishes any ordinary sound from a note. Yet, while I personally find this fascinating, I’m sure not everyone holds the same curiosity. So, back to the topic of this blog- the psychology.

As said in the previous book I read on this subject, This is Your Brain on Music, one of the main components of the effect that music has on emotions relates to the building, meeting of, and breaking expectations. Though we are not all conscious music theory exports, our subconsciouses know a lot more than we do. We subconsciously follow the trend of the music; the keys, the chord progressions, the time signatures. And if an expectation is met, such as resolving a chord, that pleases us. If an expectation is violated, we are surprised and may feel unnerved.

Many of the effects of music also are due to our own trained notions of associations. For instance, when you hear a soft violin melody, you may associate that with romance due to our copious exposure to this instrument being used in a ‘romantic’ fashion. If you were on a date and a tuba player came out and began to serenade you and the object of your affection with the same melody, you likely would not experience the same perception of romance. These are not responses due to biology, but rather association with culture.

Though there is much more to be gleaned from this book, these are some of the main points to be gained. It’s quite an interesting read, though this is coming from the girl interested in researching the topic for a year. The author also writes on both the topics of music and psychology in a way that those who are not familiar with the specialized terms of either topic can understand. In a nutshell- give it a read.


A Few Resources

There seems to be a multitude of information on the topic of the connection between music and the mind. However, just because this information is abundant and readily available does not inherently mean that all of it is credible or even very informative. So here lies a list that is hopefully a bit more focused and scholarly than you might just find through a google search.

The effects of music on academia

Some studies on the correlation between music and emotions

A scientific view on the effects of music therapy

The use of music therapy to help speech

A part of the documentary Alive Inside mentioned in the first post

A podcast explaining why we like the music we like

Of course, there are many more resources and a multitude of books written on the topic of music and psychology, but these are just a few to show the array of research into this field.

Regarding Quandaries

How does music affect emotions and thought? This is the topic that has captured my attention. Again, part of the reason for this is my personal interest in both music and psychology. Yet this topic is also so interesting to me because of the applications of the results. Due to how strong the effects of music on the brain can be, using music as a treatment of sorts for the mind is a very real possibility. Essentially, the topic of music and the mind is not just one of frivolous curiosity, but one that could have profound and powerful effects in the real world.

Yet a topic so broad as music and the mind isn’t something so easy to type into a search bar and gain productive and efficient results. So perhaps a bit more of specificity is required. For that sake, this list of questions will be my framework for research, and will hopefully be answered by the end of this escapade.

  1. How do different genres of music affect emotions and the brain?
  2. Do different songs of the same genre invoke different emotions?
  3. How do different people react to the same songs?
  4. Do specific instruments invoke specific emotions?
  5. What is the actual chemical activity in the brain caused by music?
  6. How do different physical reactions in the brain vary from song to song?
  7. Why does music have so strong a capability to affect emotions?
  8. Why can a specific song incite a specific memory so strongly?
  9. How does the music we listen to affect the thoughts we have?
  10. Why do different people like different genres of music, and does this tie into different brain structures and the music’s effect on them?
  11. How can music be used to help treat mental health disorders?

To begin…

There’s no way to say it without sounding like a cliche- I grew up with music. My Dad was in a band when I was a kid, I started learning piano when I was 5 or 6 (no one can seem to remember the exact age), and an essential part of Sunday mornings was always Jamie Cullum playing in the background of breakfast. I now find myself in marching band playing flute, and attempting to teach myself guitar. To say music is a large part of my life would be an understatement.

As I grew up, I also came to be interested in psychology. How other people think and how they see the world fascinates me, despite my choice to take AP U.S. History rather than AP Psych. For some reason, I have never been able to learn enough about how our brains work.

So combining music and psychology? That sounds like an fascinating topic to me.

Though a relatively new science, the study of the psychology of music has already made some impressive discoveries. For instance, the connection between music and memory. The documentary Alive Inside chronicles the reactions of Alzheimer’s patients when presented with music they used to listen to when they were younger. Patients who are regularly unresponsive suddenly sing along to music and answer questions about their past down to specific dates.

Yet of course, the connection of music and mind goes deeper than memory.

Currently, I’m reading the book This is your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin. It investigates how music affects the brain through memory, emotions, behavioral science, and more. Essentially, it looks into why music is important to us as humans, and refutes the idea that it is simply an evolutionary byproduct of our growth intellectually as a species.

Though I have much more to say on this topic, through knowledge gained from personal experience as well as research, this is only the first post. So for now, I leave you with a piece of music I have found to invoke powerful emotions that vary from person to person. Unless you are highly offended by classical or pianistic music, I would recommend giving it a listen.