Science Spotlight: How Music Impacts our Mood

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Music is magic. I bet we can all share stories…coming home after a stressful day, putting on that Bruce Springsteen tune, and immediately feeling better. We sink into that favorite chair and let out a sigh. Music can change our mood or reinforce a current one. But how? What is going on inside the brain? How does something that hits us through the air as invisible sound waves have such a tremendous impact on our mental and emotional states? Let’s check it out…[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]


The complexity of what’s going on inside our heads when music hits our ears is staggering. Amazingly, we really didn’t have a fleshed out picture of this intricate process until the early 1990s. Sound waves are converted to electrical impulses in the inner ear and sent to the auditory cortex via the auditory nerve. Basically, our ears are microphones; the function is identical – changing sound waves to electrical impulses – a nerve and the auditory cortex – a wire and an amplifier. That’s just the initial doings. The interesting stuff happens in the amygdalae – partially responsible for emotional learning and response, as well as aspects of memory formation.

I love science-types and how they name things. This part of the brain consists of two almond-shaped groupings of tightly packed cells – so naturally scientists chose the Greek word for almond as the name. These little almonds connect to many other parts of the brain; no wonder we are so often moved by music! It can cause the pulse to speed up, the face to flush, and the pupils to dilate. If the amygdalae are damaged, our ability to read emotional cues in the faces of others becomes compromised. But why does music make us feel?[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]


That’s a big part of the answer: dopamine. Basically, dopamine is a chemical messenger that allows nerve cells in the brain to send messages to other nerve cells. Music stimulates the release of this chemical in the striatum, another part of the brain associated with reward, reinforcement, and even motor control. Because of this dopamine release, you may form new and recall old memories, and it’s been known for a while that musicians tend to perform better on standardized tests. This may be due to what’s happening here.

Recently, I attended one of my wife’s elementary school choral concerts. While the chorus sang, the gentleman seated next to me was completely engrossed in his smart phone – but – his foot was tapping to the music. Sometimes music makes us move and we don’t even realize it. This was dopamine in action. His mind responded to the music and he became involved.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]


There are concepts in music that seem highly complex but are actually rather straightforward that impact how we perceive music, particularly tuneful music. The contrast between crunchy (or dissonant) sounding musical moments and sweet (or consonant) counterparts causes us to feel some degree of tension and then release. Think of Nadia’s Theme, the title music from The Young and the Restless. The lower notes constantly shift from crunchy to sweet and that contrast can cause an emotional response. This contrast, and in most cases the resolution of tension causes our brains to respond physically by releasing chemicals. This, in turn, impacts our emotions. Dissonance can make us feel uneasy; the resolution to consonance can relieve that state.

We have been conditioned to anticipate that resolution of crunchy to sweet sounds. We expect it to occur. The dopamine release can actually happen before that peak moment, heightening the sensation of anticipation and increasing the impact of the resolution.[/vc_column_text][vc_video link=””][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Here’s another musical concept – home and away. Do you remember Do Re Mi? Do is home. It’s where most music starts and almost all music ends. Contrast also occurs when the music moves away from home (Do), goes somewhere else, and then returns. Home is stable…away is often uneasy in comparison. When the music returns home, one can feel a sense of ease or comfort. It’s rewarding when the music returns home. Here’s a really simple example – Frère Jacques.

Home and Away
The French folk tune, Freré Jacques

[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]At its most basic, this is a song that goes away from Do (F – the note on the first syllable of the the first word) and then returns. It is this going away and coming back that speaks to us emotionally – we relate to the feeling of coming home.[/vc_column_text][vc_separator][vc_column_text]The arts and emotion – they are intrinsically linked. Composers write with an intent to affect how we feel. It doesn’t matter what the genre is – good music will stir us up inside. So…the next time your little one is feeling a little down, play that favorite song. Better yet, sing it with her. Better still…sing it with the whole family and dance around the den. Remember friends, music is magic![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][class_finder_form css=”.vc_custom_1464230496234{padding-top: 20px !important;padding-right: 20px !important;padding-bottom: 20px !important;padding-left: 20px !important;}”][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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