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How Does Music Help Us Feel?

Exploring why we "heart" music.

When you think of how music changes the way you feel, what comes to mind first? Is it a particular song, perhaps one of those “go-to” songs on your playlist? Or maybe your thoughts veer towards why you listen to music—to feel good, to pump yourself up, or to help you navigate difficult feelings? Or perhaps it’s the more general idea that music is “your therapy,” something you turn to because it helps you feel better.

As a music therapist, I’m used to thinking about and considering the impact music has on our everyday emotional lives. This generally relates to how music influences our moods and can shift our emotions, either by our design (that is, because we want it to) or unintentionally (for example, when hearing music in a restaurant).

So, in being interviewed recently for a short documentary series, it was refreshing for me to be reminded of other ways to think about the connection between music and our emotions—three ways, to be specific.

Musical Predictability

One area to explore is why music influences our emotions. This is a rather complex area of study and there are a lot of ways to examine this question. But one consideration relates to the idea of predictability. One of the other documentary interviewees described how there's a “sweet spot” (to use her words) to this—we tend to like music that’s somewhat predictable, but not so much so that we find it boring. So what contributes to music’s predictability?

For starters, there’s repetition. Think about it—music is repetitive. In fact, this is a fairly common feature of music. It often includes repetitive lyrics, harmonic progressions, melodic lines, and rhythmic riffs. As one of the interviewers put it, this type of repetition makes music “sticky” in our brain. We remember it more easily and it lends itself to making music more predictable.

Another factor that influences predictability is familiarity. There are two ways this can happen. One is through our personal connections to (or associations with) musical works. We’re familiar with songs we know, particularly if they center on a certain time or event in our lives.

But what about songs we hear for the first time? We may easily like a song upon first hearing it. Well, in this case, we can consider the familiarity of the structural quality of the music itself.

Take me, for example. Although I enjoy and appreciate multiple styles of music, due to my upbringing and musical training, I'm most attuned to Western music. I grew up listening to it and thus have a certain level of familiarity and comfort in the predictability I perceive in the harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, form, timbral, and textural qualities of Western music. This is why I tend to be drawn more to, for example, acoustic-type coffeehouse songs over raga music upon an initial listen.

Musical Identity

The psychologist who was interviewed brought up an interesting point—the music we prefer is tied to how we view ourselves and how we want others to view us. In other words, it’s tied to our identity. How is this connected to emotions?

For starters, think of musical preference. If, as a music therapist, you are working with an adult and aiming to incorporate their preferred music, one area to consider is music that was popular when they were a teenager and young adult. Why is that? Because this is when we start to decide who we are and who we want to be. In other words, this is when our identities begin to solidify. And the music we choose to listen to or play during this period of time is tied to our preference, which is itself connected to how we self-identify.

What's more, the music connected to our identity (both the music itself and how we engage with it) holds a special meaning. It elicits an emotional reaction. This may happen when we listen to, play, or sing a certain song, as well as when we think about that song or remember musical experiences we’ve had.

Additionally, music provides a way for us to self-regulate our feelings. We listen to or play certain songs, either by ourselves or with others, as a way to control and shift our emotional experiences. And the music we choose to listen to for this self-regulation is commonly connected to our musical identity and preference.

Musical Community

Our musical identity is also related to how we engage with music. I’ve heard people joke that they don’t play an instrument, but “play the radio.” Or they self-identity as a band player, a choir singer, a musical theater buff, or a jazzer. Perhaps they jam at home, playing simply for fun and enjoyment, or maybe they have a more professional performance-oriented approach, practicing towards peak performance.

The way in which we identify with and engage with music connects us to other musically like-minded individuals. In other words, it creates a sense of community. Do we jam with friends? Sing in a community choir? Play in a band? Perform in a professional capacity? All these scenarios describe different ways of being part of a musical community. And there’s an emotional feeling that happens when we feel connected to others, when we feel included in this way. It fosters a shared emotional experience that we can not only feel in that moment, but can also relive at a later time when remembering the experience.

As mentioned above, I was recently interviewed for a three-part documentary series on the science underlying why we love the music we love; the three parts can be viewed here, here, and here.

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