Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


6 Ways Music Can Alter Our State of Mind

How does music shift our emotional state?

Key points

  • Music manages our moods, memories, and motivations.
  • Pleasurable music activates pleasure and reward system.
  • Music leads to bonding between groups who are together for any purpose.
Source: mohamed_hassan/Pixabay

Our everyday states of mind (or transient conditions) shape how we think, feel, and act. Each state uniquely influences perceptions, thoughts, feeling, memory, motivation, interpersonal interactions, and the sense of self at that moment. Over time, repeated states become an enduring aspect of our character and behavior (Putnam, 2016). However, we mostly ignore the influence of any particular state that we are in at the moment.

Music is an easy way to transform our mood. For example, calming music can reduce physiological symptoms of anxiety thereby activating a relaxation response.

1. Stress management.

Music provides calmness and relaxation. Music listening is strongly associated with stress reduction by the decrease of physiological arousal as indicated by reduced cortisol levels, lowered heart rate, and decreases in mean arterial pressure (de Witte et al., 2020). Similar to meditation practices, music listening is linked to significant improvements in mood and sleep quality (Innes, 2016). For example, music with a slow steady rhythm, such as meditative music, is shown to provide stress reduction by altering inherent body rhythms, such as heart rate, resulting in greater relaxation.

2. Emotional effects of music.

Music can evoke a wide range of feeling states, such as exuberance, compassion, or tenderness (Cowen et al., 2020). For example, the “Star-Spangled Banner” stirs pride, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” makes some people feel energized, and “The Last Song” by Elton John triggers sadness.

3. Musical pleasure.

Music has the ability to evoke powerful emotional responses (chills and thrills) in listeners. Positive emotions dominate in musical experiences. Pleasurable music may lead to the release of neurotransmitters associated with reward, such as dopamine. Dopamine releases driven by music can increase the attractiveness of the surrounding environment and the motivation to pursue and desire positive feelings. Positive feelings tend to broaden our mindset in ways that are beneficial to health and creative thinking.

4. Social bonding.

Music is thought to be the social glue that enhances cooperation and strengthens feelings of unity. Music triggers the hormones oxytocin and serotonin, responsible for bonding, trust, and intimacy (Levitin, 2010). Social isolation and feelings of loneliness can be reduced simply by listening to music.

5. Music and time perception.

Music is a powerful emotional stimulus that changes our relationship with time. Time does indeed seem to fly when listening to pleasant music. Music is therefore used in waiting rooms to reduce the subjective duration of time spent waiting or in supermarkets to encourage people to stay for longer and buy more (Droit-Volet, et al., 2013). Hearing pleasant music seems to divert attention away from time processing. For example, consumers spend more time in the grocery store when the background music is slow. Music keeps workers happy when doing repetitive and otherwise boring work.

6. Music as a trigger for craving.

Music is commonly found in substance-using contexts. Music can act as an auditory cue for cravings in adults with addiction (Short and Dingle, 2015). For example, an individual who has repeatedly smoked cannabis while listening to reggae music may experience cravings for cannabis when s/he hears reggae music during a period of treatment.

In sum, emotion is a fundamental aspect of musical experience. Music can regulate mood (cheer us up or calm us down), reflect feelings, enhance group cohesion, and influence shopping decisions.


Cowen, A.S, X. Fang, D. Sauter, D. Keltner, What music makes us feel: At least 13 dimensions organize subjective experiences associated with music across different cultures. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 117, 1924–1934 (2020).

Innes, KE, Selfe, TK, Khalsa, DS, and Kandati, S. A. (2016) Effects of Meditation versus Music Listening on Perceived Stress, Mood, Sleep and Quality of Life in Adults with Early Memory Loss: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial. 2016. J Alzheimers Dis. 52 (4): 1277-1298.

Droit-Volet S. et al. (2013), Music, emotion, and time perception: the influence of subjective emotional valence and arousal? Front. Psychol., 17.

Levitin, D. J. (Ed., 2010). Foundations of cognitive psychology: Core readings, 2nd. Boston: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.

Putnam Frank, (2016). The way we are. Ipbooks.

Short, A. D. L., and Dingle, G. A. (2015). Music as an auditory cue for emotions and cravings in adults with substance use disorders. Psychol. Music doi:10.1177/0305735615577407.

de Witte, M., et al., (2020). Effects of music interventions on stress-related outcomes: A systematic review and two meta-analyses. Health Psychology Review, 14 (2), 294–324.

More from Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today