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6 Ways Music Affects Your Emotions

A key motive for listening to music is to influence one’s emotions.

People express different emotions when they listen to music, for example by smiling, laughing, or crying. Listening to music is quite common in our daily lives, and the way music makes listeners feel is a key factor in determining his or her enjoyment of the music. Here are six psychological principles that may explain listeners’ emotional reactions to music (Juslin, 2019).

1. Positive feeling. Music mostly makes us feel good. Positive feelings tend to broaden our mindset in ways that are beneficial to health and creative thinking. This explains the potential mental health benefits of music.

2. The startle effect. Our brainstem reflexes are hardwired for quick and automatic responses to sudden, loud, noise, or dissonant music. And those responses are associated with surprise, laughter, and even fear. For example, you may become startled and surprised by the loud noise during a live concert or a movie. And the sound makes you jump and you will easily remember the startle responses. People who suffer from anxiety disorders are jumpier.

3. Being in sync. Our internal rhythms, such as our heart rate, speed up or slow down to become one with the music. We float and move with the music. For instance, dancing is moving overtly or covertly in coordination with the music. Being in sync with music is a source of pleasure. This may explain our strong pleasurable urge to move our body in synchrony with the beat. Similarly, soothing baby lullabies are used to calm infants and help them fall asleep. (Their breathing rhythm becomes synchronized with their musical rhythm.) The concept is also used to increase excitement and tension in viewers by the music in movies.

4. Emotional contagion. We tend to “catch” the emotions of others when perceiving their emotional expressions. And this process assists us in understanding the feelings of others. For example, when you have a casual conversation with someone who is anxious, you tend to walk away from the encounter feeling somewhat anxious yourself. Similarly, when people attend concerts, their emotions are in part influenced by the emotions of other people present. The most obvious way in which musical events can produce contagion effects is through the non-verbal expressions (face, body) shown by performers. This suggests that a musician cannot move others unless he or she too is moved. A possible explanation of emotional contagion is so-called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons connect us to each other through a brain mechanism designed to facilitate imitation and mimicry.

5. Emotional events. Our responses to music are conditioned by the context we inhabit. Conditioning is a powerful source of emotion in music. A great deal of our musical preferences reflects our individual learning history. For example, some people may have a fond memory associated with Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" for graduation ceremonies or Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major" for a wedding. People do not forget these emotional events. When the memory is evoked, so are the associated emotions with the memory. Many listeners use music to remind themselves of the valued past events and become nostalgic.

6. Musical surprise. The brain is essentially a prediction machine that is continuously trying to predict incoming information based on past experiences. The discrepancy between the predictions made by the brain and the actual sensory input is a source of surprise. Surprise requires an unexpected outcome. This framework is key to our emotional response to music. Listeners experience strong emotions when something really unexpected happens. For example, a listener may expect a dissonant chord to resolve into a consonant one. But, this may be delayed by a creative composer to enhance emotional excitement.

In sum, music is capable of rousing both emotions and physiological responses. Music even works more rapidly and intensely upon the mind than any art, because it requires so little conscious reflection.

Facebook image: Branislav Nenin/Shutterstock


Juslin PN (2019), Musical Emotions Explained, Oxford University Press.

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