When asked how music influences the mind, not many people will be able to give a straight answer. Human beings are driven by emotion on an everyday basis. Decisions we make, who we connect with, and what we remember are all connected to how the environment or people make us feel. Any memory of major events is mostly based around how we felt when we got our first car, graduated, or even lost a loved one. But we have some control over what we feel. A popular coping mechanism after a bad day is queuing that favourite album or song that speaks to your soul, and letting the music do the rest.

Music is an exceptional phenomenon that is often taken for granted. Have you ever wondered why listening to a deeply sad song or musical piece can bring you to shivers? Or why an upbeat song makes you feel like dancing, inspired or motivated? 

A study done by Salimpoor, V., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K. et al. suggests that dopamine is released when a climax or pivotal moment in music can both be anticipated and then experienced. Dopamine is a ‘feel-good’ hormone that releases when biological needs are met, like having a meal or sleeping.
The key phrase here is that the music needs to be anticipated for us to receive the emotional or dopamine-based reward. Listening to a genre that might not be suited to one’s taste won’t necessarily create a similar response as we cannot predict the direction or outcome of the music.  With enough exposure to a new genre, one can start to understand the melodic and harmonic patterns, even if it is on a subconscious level, that will recreate the dopamine response as  one’s musical anticipation begins to grow. 

Dr. Shahram Heshmat implies that listening to sad music also has several benefits:

  • revisiting old memories that has both sad and positive emotional frameworks
  • creating intense emotional responses that displaces current negative emotions
  • Releasing prolactin (a hormone that equips us to deal with grief when crying). When not experiencing grief, this can create a pleasurable response.
  • Empathetic arousals that may cause listeners to react from a caring stance.

If you ever wondered why music with lyrics that are easily recognisable is easily enjoyable, it is because it is much easier to grasp, memorise and anticipate. Other genres might require an acquired taste that can only be obtained through repeated exposure. 

Although this sounds quite simple, there is still so much we don’t understand about why music is such a powerful driving force. Some people will still not be able to stand certain genres after hours of exposure, which might imply that the element of preference plays an important role. Music would also be seen from a non-human perspective as a racket of noises. How our brain interprets and understands it baffles scientists to this day. It is only measurable by physiological responses like the release of dopamine and prolactin. 

Whether it’s caused by hormonal releases or destinations our minds take us to, music makes us feel alive. It’s powerful influence on the mind helps us chart our courses with deeper resolve. 

“If Music is a Place — then Jazz is the City, Folk is the Wilderness, Rock is the Road, Classical is a Temple.”
– Vera Nazarina

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