The Effects of Music on the Human Brain
Sounds… No. Music… Yes! Music is a language that can connect people from all over. Even if we can’t quite understand the words of a foreigner, we can still hear them. Better yet, we can still feel their music. Music has this weird magical ability to send a message to our brain and make us react, whether we know the words or not. Is music some type of witchcraft? Should we be worried about the control music has over the human body?
As humans, we have five senses, and we can choose to please all five. With our sight, we like to see pleasing images. For some, that may be a bright sunny day with bright colored flowers. With our sense of smell we may choose the smell of a freshly baked cake before we chose the smell of rotten seafood. Same with taste. Why punish your mouth with the rotten seafood? The ability to feel and touch determines what material we want to touch our skin, and what we think about when we run our fingers down that lizard’s back. Sound. Would you rather listen to a baby cry and scream or would you rather listen to a soft piano playing? Most people would pick that soft piano playing. I say all this to remind you that we can choose to be happy and please all of our senses. And believe it or not, the way we use these senses has an obvious physical effect, as well as mental.
Tunes. Jam. Bop. Banger. All similes for the collection of sounds we call music. Hearing is the ability to perceive sound. In the world, we have disturbing sounds and we have pleasing sounds. We have good music and we have bad music. But for the most part, that is based on opinion. According to Oxford Languages, music is “vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.” But isn’t it weird how music can cause most of our senses to react? We obviously can hear and listen to music, but have you heard a song and seen a movie in your head? Has a song brought you back to a happy place where you can feel the energy, raise those hair on your arms? Well, maybe you haven’t smelled or tasted something from a song unless it brings back a specific memory. If so, then music most likely has affected all of your senses before. If music can affect all of these senses physically or mentally, what else does it affect?
Do different types of music have different effects? We have slow music. We have fast music. We have dark music. We have bright music. With research published back in 1998, we have insight on whether the question at hand may be true. In Alternative Therapies Volume 4, Number 1, the test results stated, “With grunge rock music, significant increases were found in hostility, sadness, tension, and fatigue…” also stated, “…after listening to the designer music (music designed to have specific effects on the listener), significant increases in caring, relaxation, mental clarity, and vigor were measured…” We could speculate that this may be because of various variables. Usually grunge music has a darker tone with harsher instrumentation. And this designer music has brighter instrumentation with a happy tone. Think of grunge music as motocross. Loud sounds of motorcycles, dirty images. A very dirty setting, with a very strong sense of risk taking. The term grunge even means dirt. Now let’s think of designer music. Maybe a skating rink and arcade would picture this perfectly. The fast paced, happy people in the middle, while there are still some people chilling out the side. The programmed drums and synth sounds are very inviting. While rap music gets a bad rep for the explicitness, we have to wonder, what benefits come from such music? Well, if you think about the image of a rapper, it is one of hard work and success. Most people associate the rapper image with nice cars, a lot of women, and a lot of jewelry. So what might the listener think about? Exactly! Rap music can help promote confidence. Maybe the rawness and flashy music isn’t so negative after all. But what about sad music? Why do people like listening to sad music if sadness is associated with pain? With research done by a group of Japanese collectives, they pronounce that, “the results revealed that although sad music was perceived to be more tragic, listening to sad music actually induced participants to feel more romantic, blither, and less tragic. Thus, the participants seemed to experience ambivalent emotions when listening to sad music. This is possibly because the emotion induced by music is indirect, that is, not induced by personal events, which somehow induces participants to feel pleasure as well.” For something to make us feel more romantic, blither, and ambivalent, we must feel vulnerable. And maybe the feeling of vulnerability in a safe place is what can make us happy. In a society with pressure and expectations, we have the need to be strong. But you can’t be strong 24/7. And maybe this when the need to feel vulnerable comes into play. When you feel vulnerable, you want to be comforted. To feel comforted, you would want someone to be by your side who can understand your pain and will listen to you. Most people would not go out to a party to feel comforted, most people would call that avoiding the issue. So we can think of sad music as an emotional connection. We have the singer as the friend by your side and the instrumentation telling you that it’s human to feel weak.
Now that we see the relationship between music and emotions, maybe we can figure out how to use it to our advantage. Hearing these instruments and people have an affect on us but what is this weird science behind it all?
Many people listen to different music, and many people listen to music differently. Music enthusiasts may listen to lots of music carefully and enjoy every single element. The casual listener may only listen to music with a basic view and enjoy it for what it is. But either way, people listen because it makes them feel a certain way. Music has the ability to put us in another dimension if we let it. The sound waves enter the ears, which sends signals to our brain, which then tells us how to react. But, these zones also affect people’s emotional states as well as cognitive abilities.
One big reason we can feel music as we hear it is because each note has a different frequency. These frequencies go to the brain and our brain reacts. Now, when multiple keys are played, whether it’s at the same time or in the form of a melody, the group of frequencies create a feeling or emotion. And this is when scales and key signatures come into play. Each key has a certain group of notes that can be played, giving each key a different feel. We also have the Major and Minor scales. Usually, the Major scale sounds happy, while the Minor scale sounds dark. For example, most kid nursery rhymes are in a Major scale. Mary Had Little Lamb is in the key of C Major. Happy songs for kids keep them innocent, happy, and fresh. Now, in the mainstream pop world, let’s think of an example for adults. Ariana Grande. Her new 2020 hit “Positions” in the key of C Major and promotes happiness. In this song, she describes how she would do many things to keep her man happy. The emotional feeling of the song is happiness. LedgerNote.com describes C Major as, “Completely pure. Simplicity and naivety. The key of children. Free of burden, full of imagination. Powerful resolve. Earnestness. Can feel religious.” In opposition, Ariana’s 2019 hit “7 Rings” in the key of Db Minor. Immediately the aura of the song is different. This song is basically her bragging about being able to get whatever she wants. WMich.edu describes C# Minor as “Penitential lamentation, intimate conversation with God, the friend and help-meet of life; sighs of disappointed friendship and love lie in its radius.” While the lyrics are not described as this, although some could think bragging about material possessions is sinful, instrumentation definitely has this feeling. But this is one example of the scales and emotions having a nice relation.
But what about when one song doesn’t feel like how it’s supposed to? One artist in particular whose music we can compare is The Weeknd. His new 2019 hit, Blinding Lights is the key of Db Major. Db Major is described as “Rapture in sadness. A grimacing key of choking back tears. It is capable of a laugh or smile to pacify those around, but the truth is in despair. Fullness of tone, sonority, and euphony.” When you hear the song it doesn’t seem like there’s any type of pain. But it’s when you actually listen and dissect the lyrics. Genius.com says “The track finds Abel in a constant state of distraction that he only gets relief from when in the presence of a significant other.” Depending who is asked, this song could be a happy song as he’s trying hard for love, or could be a song of destruction as he continues to rely on the need of a female. But remove the lyrics and the song definitely seems like a very happy tune. This 80s inspired song has no signs of making people feel sad or angry, unless you have a bad memory or don’t like the song. But for a twist, on The Weeknd’s same album, his song After Hours in the key of F Minor. This song has a darker, ambient feel. Ledgernote.com describes F Minor’s feeling as, “Deepest depression, lament over death and loss, groans of misery, ready to expire. Harrowing. Melancholic.” If we played these songs back to back, we could quickly point out the difference of the emotional feelings. But one of The Weeknd’s older songs “The Party & The After Party” is also in F Minor. But, this song sounds a little more happy and brighter than “After Hours.” If these two songs are in the same exact key, why do they sound different?
There’s multiple reasons for this. One reason relates to the instruments used. Different instruments give off a certain type of sound, or have a certain timbre. Brighter sounds like those from bells and high octaves on a piano tend to make things seem happier and safer. Darker sounds like those from a bass or low octave on a piano tend to keep things powerful and edgy. Another reason, which is more on the sound engineering side, is the perception of the instrument. By this, I mean the way the instrument is manipulated to give depth or character. I could have a bell, but if I process it to take away the higher frequencies, it would sound darker. But also, if I add delay (echo) and reverb (space), it would make the bell seem ambient and distant. The sense of space could make something feel different, maybe ery in some instincts. Think of walking through the forest and you hear a bell in the distance. Depending on the circumstances, like if you seek refuge, you could be glad to hear something that shows a sign of hope. But maybe, it is night time and you plan on being alone, the sound could startle you and cause panic. I say this to show that the other instruments and their characteristics also affect how we perceive another instrument to fit the song. The third reasoning is the tempo and rhythm of the song. Slow songs tend to drag, causing more suspense or a more mellow feel. Fast songs tend to bring action. Think of action movies, they tend to keep people on their toes and entertained. But, another key is the rhythm. Usually, “off-beats” tend to add bounce, which could make people want to move and dance. But the most important reasoning for a happy or dark sound is the tension with the keys. This is an important cause as every Major key has a Minor relative key, which means a Major key would have the same notes as a Minor key. The only difference is that the center of the scales are focused on different spots. The way to figure out the relative key of the Major key is to drop down three notes. An example would be F Major turning into D Minor. These keys have the same exact notes, but the center focus is different. In the D Minor key, the next two in key notes are E and F, which are right next to each other and cause tension. The next two notes in F Major are G and A, which have a note gap in between. This is the reason some say Major scales could seem happier, because the focus of the scale has less tension. On musical instruments, the closer the notes are to each other, the more tension there will be. SchoolOfComposition.com says, “Musical tension is a sense of unrest, instability, excitement or anticipation, an impression that more is coming and a curiosity for what’s next.” The more or less tension there is, depending on the notes chosen in the specific scale, some songs will be happier, scarier, adventurous, or even more depressing.
In conclusion, many factors cause the emotional connection between music and human responses. The frequency change of each note and putting them in a group changes the feeling of the sounds. But other factors like the type of sound and the distance and timing of sounds, also affect the emotional ride.
If we ask different people their opinion on music, they may all most likely say that they like listening to music. If we ask them if they think listening to music all day could help them in regular tasks, some may agree and some may say it’s a distraction. Music does help please our senses. It creates a feeling. The sound waves enter the ears, which sends signals to our brain, which then tells us how to react. Different music affects us differently. Uptempo music can motivate us, while slow music can help us relax. Rap music can bring confidence, while R&B could make us feel in love. Music brings us many different emotions and moods, but can there be too much music? Is there a time when we should take about from the soft drug?
While listening to music does have its benefits, are the benefits able to be stretched out throughout the whole day or even weeks. Or do the benefits max out after a period of time. Music can help while doing fast tasks like cleaning the house, driving to work, writing a quick paper, or even constructing other arts like painting. Sure, as creatures with ears we can hear music, but at what point do we drown it out and it just becomes noise? Do the benefits still apply when we reach this point? “Other important benefits include: Learning creative thinking, Learning to express feelings and emotions, Improving language and reasoning skills. Some studies show music programs can raise intelligence. Music can also improve something called spatial intelligence. This important ability helps with seeing the world and making sense out of what is seen. children who took music increased their IQ it may be because of the focused attention, memorization, and concentration skills needed to study music (Shim, 2017).” Sure, for kids exposure to music has a wide spectrum of long term benefits. But, as for a whole day, when does creativity stop? When the wide arrangement of moods and emotions create fatigue and sleepiness? The constant release of hormones in the brain and body has to get tired at some point. We can’t always be in overdrive mode, that is how our bodies start to break down and need the reset button to be exercised faster. For some people, always listening to music could be exhausting. These people could potentially start to lose their minds, as they may need peace and quiet. There’s even evidence that listening to music for a long period of time causes ear fatigue. This explains why audio engineers and recording artists take a lot of breaks while recording music. Think of the ear as a regular muscle. Just like lifting weights, the constant use of the ear can weaken it temporarily until it gets rest. And just like a regular muscle, the heavier the load, the quicker the muscle burns out. The louder the music, the quicker ear fatigue kicks in. Failure to realize this can lead to ear damage. A lot of things in life are good when it’s in moderation, and music is one of these things.
Others could argue that the content of certain music can have a negative impact on the youth. Older, experienced, humans may say that pop music is glorifying sex. Rap is glorifying drugs and violence. And others may argue that everything mainstream is pushing these images because it sells. Others may even say that some of the same ideas were in past music, but people now just can’t seem to accept something new. And others may argue that if you dive deeper into the music, you can actually find good substance. Music is all subjective, just taste. I can understand parents wanting to protect their children from the explicit content. Six year olds should not be singing along with song WAP, which is an adult song made by Cardi B and Meg The Stallion. But, that same parent should not shame someone else from listening to this song, that isn’t her responsibility. This song may not be good to one mom, but it may make another mom feel a special feeling. But, as a society, it is kind of weird that, for the most part, we can agree on what is a bad or good song. It’s like we evolved to have a standard. Special elements can help us agree, in general. The elements are instrumentation, voice of the singer, lyrics, rhythm, flow, and how the words flow over the instrumentation. All of these elements have evolved as we evolved as humans.
While some may say listening to music all the time is not always a good thing, everyone can agree that everyone enjoys listening to music at some point.
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