The Psychology of Music: Why We Listen to Music and How It Affects The Mind

Music is found in most cultures in the world, and that is not without a reason.

Why do we listen to music?
Why do we listen to music? A review has identified three overall psychological factors of listening music: 1. to regulate arousal and mood, 2. to achieve self-awareness, 3. as an expression of social relatedness (Schäfer et al., 2013).

The first and second factors were deemed to be much more important than the third one. This finding is in contrast with what we would expect as many theories posit that music has evolved as a means for social communication and coordination.

However, it may reflect the fact that music now has a different meaning for people than it has had in the past. Continue your reading and find out how the mind is affected by music.

How the mind is affected by music

A review by Miendlarzewska & Trost (2014), published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, highlights how music influences cognitive development. Children who undergo musical training have better:

Verbal memory, second language pronunciation accuracy, reading ability and executive functions

Learning to play an instrument as a child may increase academic performance and result in improvements in all indexes of the IQ (verbal comprehension, perceptual organization, and freedom from distractibility, and processing speed).

The authors state that music can produce neuroplastical (structural) and functional changes in the brain. These changes correlate with intensity and duration of practice.

This influence appears to be strongest when musical training takes place during sensitive periods, i.e. before the age of 7. Structural changes in the brain may also occur later in life, some research shows.

Changing what people experience in one modality (e.g., auditory) can sometimes change their experience of the stimuli presented in another modality (e.g., taste).

In a study by North (2012) , 250 participants were served glasses of wine while listening to certain musical pieces in the background. After the participants had emptied their glasses, they were asked to rate the characteristics of the wine.

The characteristics of the wine were either: “powerful and heavy” , “subtle and refined”, “zingy and refreshing”, or “mellow and soft”. The musical pieces had been given the same characteristics in another study.

All participants rated the wine as significantly more “powerful and heavy” if they had listened to powerful and heavy background music while drinking the wine. A similar effect was found for the three other musical pieces.

Another study by Crisinel et al. (2012) found that listening to lower-pitched sounds could help emphasize bitter notes in a bittersweet toffee, while listening to higher-pitched sounds tends to bring out its sweetness.

Kawakami and colleagues (2013) wondered why we listen to sad music if it makes us sad. In an experiment, the authors divided musical emotion into perceived emotion and felt emotion as they hypothesized that felt and perceived emotion in response to sad music would be different:

“The results revealed that the sad music was perceived to be more tragic, whereas the actual experiences of listening to the sad music induced them to feel more romantic, more blithe, and less tragic emotions …”

An experiment by Marin and colleagues (2013), involving 76 piano performance students, found that how much the participants experienced flow was predicted by the amount of daily practice and the participants’ emotional intelligence.

The degree of flow may depend on the musical style:

“The majority of our participants associated Romantic music, and particularly the music by Frédéric Chopin, with flow experiences.”
However, most of the participants played Chopin and were very familiar with his musical style. So they might have rated this particular style as more flow-inducing simply because of that.

60 participants received false failure feedback after completing a computer task, in a study by Ziv and colleagues (2011). 30 participants listened to positive music following the task, while the remaining 30 participants did not listen to any music (a control group).

Results revealed that participants who listened to positive music scored higher on emotions of hope compared to the control group. The positive musical pieces affected only participants with high dispositional hope.

Research by Fox & Embrey (1972) suggests that music can influence productivity of short cycle repetitive tasks (visual quality control tasks).

Lively, “beaty”, music was found to be more effective than slow, melodious, but steady-rhytmed tunes. A period of five minutes of music is probably enough to achieve gains, but 10 to 15 minutes is better for listener satisfaction.

The results also revealed that continuous music is no better than continuous noise as far as productivity is concerned. So there should ideally be breaks in between pieces of music to increase productivity.