how music plays us: a study on music taste and life experiences

I stopped seeing someone a couple weeks ago. It was painful, as it should have been; I was so immersed in the emotional relationship that I had convinced myself we had, but she did not feel the same. Less than a week goes by and I notice that I’ve been loudly looping a Lumineers song over and over again. It’s some song about painting windows on the inside of a prison cell, and how falling in love is so alone. This was odd for me because I’ve been binging artists like Radiohead and Queens of the Stone Age recently, and The Lumineers were very far away from these bands genre-wise. I had no idea what this song was about; but after doing some research I learned that it was a perfect description of the situation I’d just experienced in my recent relationship.

I’ve known music to do some amazing things, I’ve been in love with it since forever. But it blew my mind to learn that I was developing a strong connection to songs subliminally; unbeknown to me, their meanings and themes fit my life like a glove. This raised a couple questions in my head, but the most pressing one was simply: Is this normal? I took a poll on my Instagram to find that, to 94% of my followers, it was normal!

By now I was curious; Why do we listen to music? Can certain music convey specific emotions?  Why does our music taste change, and what factors dictate it’s direction? Does volume play a role in music’s effect on us? I’ve been on a journey to find the answer to these questions, and this is what I’ve found.

 

Why do we listen to music?

I started with this; a heavily loaded question that had never crossed my mind until now. It feels so natural to listen to music, more natural than most of the other things in my life. But why do we do it? The obvious answer that everyone knows is simple: dopamine. The “feel-good neurotransmitter.” [1] But it gets a little more complicated than that. The reason our brain administers dopamine is with respect to our brain’s “reward system.” [2] To make it simple, our brain evaluates tasks and gives us a level of motivation to complete them; once we expect to receive a reward for these tasks, our brain releases dopamine. This is why it feels good to eat a food we crave, to complete an exercise, to get lots of sleep, and to have sex; [2] however, our brain also releases dopamine when listening to music. Why? Music doesn’t have any “specific survival advantages” [3] like eating, exercising, and sleeping; so why does our body reward us for listening to it? 

While eating, sleeping, exercising, and sex grant actual physical rewards to us, the reward music gives to us is “entirely abstract.” [4] I’ll give an example. In an article by Wired.com, a point was brought up about musicologist Leonard Meyer, and his book Emotion and Meaning in Music. In his book, Meyer shows how famous composer Beethoven begins the 5th movement of his String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op.131 with a “clear statement of a rhythmic and harmonic pattern,” [4] but would then avoid repeating it; instead playing different versions and patterns but never repeating the same clear statement he had made before. He then finishes the arrangement with an E major chord, which gives complete resolution to the arrangement and is the chord our brains are waiting to hear. The reason that this is able to take part in our brain’s reward system is because of the building tension that “the mind attempts to resolve into clarity and certainty.” [5] As our brain continues to try and guess the next notes, it becomes more and more interested in resolving the tension, all the way up until the huge release of an ending. In other words, music is literally manipulating the brain into releasing dopamine, in complete defiance of our brains evolution to reward us for the things that give us a survivalistic advantage.

 

Can music convey specific emotions?

Yes. Music can convey specific emotions; to an extent. For example, think of a happy song. While it is not always the case, generally speaking, “major chords and major keys produce a light, happy sound.” [9] Likewise, while it is not the case every time, “minor chords and minor keys produce a dark, sad sound.” [9] Again, to reiterate for the music theory people, this is not true 100% of the time, but for the majority of the time it is. 

However, key is not the only thing that affects the emotion conveyed in a song; another important factor is the tempo. Fast tempo’s with a major key typically conjure a happy tune, while a slow tempo in a minor key will create a sad one.

You can also make a song sound angry. For example, one of the best ways composers used to do this was by using a quick tempo in a minor scale, with quick sharp notes. [10] Electric guitars, especially in rock and metal music, are exceptionally good at creating anger.

Listen to the “Jaws” by John Williams. How does that sound? It should convey a heavy sense of terror, and this is due to the “high pitched nonlinear noise,” accompanied by dissonant chords! [11]

 

Why does our music taste change, and what dictates it’s direction?

After the helpfulness of the first poll I put on my Instagram, I decided that I would see who would take part in a study on the topic of music taste. I got a large number of responses, and created 13 different questions to ask them about their music tastes, volume levels, lifestyle changes, and their emotional wellbeing. 

Two of the questions I asked in the study were “Have you had any large changes in your lifestyle since Covid-19?” and “Has your music taste changed since Covid-19?” From all the answers, the data showed that over 59% of participants’ music taste changed when they had a change in their lifestyle; unfortunately this change in lifestyle is more than likely due to the Covid-19 outbreak itself, and also likely consisted of a loss of social life and a whole lot of isolation. According to the CDC, “Symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased considerably in the United States during April–June of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.” [7] This is very important for my next piece of data. 

One of the questions I asked was “Is the lyrical content of your music mostly: happy, sad, angry, scary, or something else?” From this question I learned that 53% of all participants (45% of men and 60% of women) mostly listened to sad lyrics. Lyrics that were happy, angry, or scary made up a much smaller percentage of the data. 

Another question that I asked my followers was to determine which of four different audio files I sent them they liked the most. These audio files were only instrumentals, and included progressions and tonalities that promoted four different emotions: happy, sad, angry or stressed, and scary. Of these audio files, 50% (45% of men and 54% of women) chose the audio file that was stressed or angry, with the sad audio file being the next most popular at 33% (39% of men and 29% of women). Now, these two figures alone are astonishing; why do we seem to gravitate towards music that is stressed, angry, and sad? 

To make it even more confusing, when asked about their emotional well being, 62% answered that they were either sad or stressed/angry. 

While all these pieces of data alone could seem unrelated, I found that 70% of listeners listened to music that mirrored their emotional well being. In other words, sad people listen to sad music, angry people listen to angry music, and happy people listen to happy music; 70% of the time. I can understand why happy people would listen to happy music, but why would people who are already in emotional turmoil be listening to something sad or stressful? Isn’t this counterintuitive in some way to the science behind why we listen to music? To release dopamine, the “feel-good neurotransmitter?” [1]

Searching for any kind of reason, I asked the participants why they listened to music at all—and I received a resounding answer. 68% of participants gave nearly the exact same explanation; they listened to music to access or manipulate their emotions. With so many people using music to access or manipulate their emotions, has it been working? Has the general public been able to manipulate their sad emotions into happier ones that stay after the speaker stops playing? 

I turned to an article recently published by Vice. In the article, there is an interview with Jessica Pouranfar, who is a board-certified music therapist. Pouranfar states “It’s important to listen to music that matches our state of being in tempo, in rhythm, in frequency, in volume, and in lyrics.”  She adds that the reason for this being is that “the sweet spot is finding music that directly mirrors your mood and body and then gradually changing what you listen to in order to improve your emotional and physical state.” [6] In other words, as Pouranfar might explain it; the emotional well being of the public has been stagnantly low for some time—since April according to the CDC [7]—and our music listening tendencies are not doing us any favors. By gradually increasing the contents of our music to be happier, we could essentially begin to heal our emotional well being, and be much happier individuals!

Now, to answer the original question, according to the data, our emotions themselves play a significant part in our taste for music. However, the specific genre and artists we listen to are more derived from our culture and who we are exposed to upon upbringing. [8]

 

How does volume affect us?

Many of us are not following the template that was recommended by Pouranfar; so why do we continue to listen to music that mirrors our sad, stressed, angry, and scared emotions? The answer is: volume! It’s actually stress relieving! “It releases endorphins when stimulated by loud music, so listening to loud music is essentially self-medicating” says Dr. Neil Todd, who also found that our brain particularly likes low-bass frequencies above 90 decibels. To back up Dr. Todd’s claims, my own research found that 86% of my participants listen to their music loudly, which would help explain why the participants in my study are able to access and manipulate their emotions, while still continuing to listen to music that mirrors their negative emotions.

 

Sources:

  1. “Dopamine.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 2020, www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/dopamine.
  2. Halber, Deborah. “Motivation: Why You Do the Things You Do.” BrainFacts.org, 29 Aug. 2018, www.brainfacts.org/thinking-sensing-and-behaving/learning-and-memory/2018/motivation-why-you-do-the-things-you-do-082818. 
  3. Dolan, Eric W. “Listening to the Music You Love Will Make Your Brain Release More Dopamine, Study Finds.” PsyPost, 2 Feb. 2019, www.psypost.org/2019/02/listening-to-the-music-you-love-will-make-your-brain-release-more-dopamine-study-finds-53059. 
  4. Lehrer, Jonah. “The Neuroscience Of Music.” Wired, Conde Nast, 3 June 2017, www.wired.com/2011/01/the-neuroscience-of-music/. 
  5. Meyer, Leonard B. Emotion and Meaning in Music. University of Chicago Press, 1966. 
  6. Terry, Josh. Is Pandemic Brain Changing Your Taste in Music? You’re Not Alone, 2 Oct. 2020, 4:00am, www.vice.com/en/article/m7j8gq/pandemic-changing-music-taste-nostalgia. 
  7. “Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic – United States, June 24–30, 2020.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13 Aug. 2020, www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6932a1.htm. 
  8. Howard, Jacqueline. “Where Your Taste in Music Comes From.” CNN, Cable News Network, 12 Apr. 2017, www.cnn.com/2016/08/10/health/where-taste-in-music-comes-from/index.html. 
  9. Serna, Desi. “What Makes a Song Light or Dark, Happy or Sad?” Guitar Music Theory by Desi Serna, 26 July 1970, www.guitarmusictheory.com/what-makes-a-song-light-or-dark-happy-or-sad/. 
  10. “The Listening Service – How Do You Make Music Sound Angry?” BBC Radio 3, BBC, 2020, www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/4pXwqdXCVWYDHhWD0wMQQPW/how-do-you-make-music-sound-angry. 
  11. Eva, Amsen. “What Makes Scary Music Scary?” Medium, Medium, 28 Oct. 2017, medium.com/@easternblot/what-makes-scary-music-scary-125751198aa7. 
  12. “5 Reasons Why People like Loud Music (Blame Your Brain).” Loop Earplugs | High Fidelity Hearing Protection for Music, Events, Concerts & Musicians, 22 Mar. 2019, blog.loopearplugs.com/why-people-love-loud-music/. 
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