From sound to emotion

How music affects our feelings

by Bettina Zeidler (01.02.2023)

How can music evoke emotions? How can music calm and reduce stress? Systematic musicologist Bettina Zeidler introduces us to the world of music psychology.

Rrrriing rrrriing. The alarm clock rings - far too early, as usual. Dog-tired, you drag yourself to the bus stop. A late bus ensures that you arrive at work in a hurry and ultimately too late. There, the tasks pile up metres high. Another stressful day. Who hasn't experienced that? And even when it finally comes to an end and you're back home, the tension still lingers. Rapid pulse, short breath, restlessness.

What helps to calm down after such days? What slows down the pulse a little? And what leads to even and calm breathing? It's music. Because if you lie down on the couch after stressful days and turn on music, you quickly notice how you become more and more calm. This can be explained by the fact that when you listen to music, as well as when you make music, you synchronise yourself with the music. This means that sometimes your pulse and breathing rate adjust to the rhythm of the music completely unconsciously. In a way, you tune in to the music. For example, lullabies have a particularly calming effect due to their slow, swaying triple time.

Synchronising with a rhythm can be used not only to calm down, but also to activate. In competitive sports, for example, music is often used to speed up the pace. In fact, by matching movements to a rhythm, it is possible to increase the performance of sportspeople.

Synchronising with music can also play an important role in social interactions. If, for example, music is playing in the background during a joint dinner, this also unconsciously adapts movement sequences to it. As a result, not only each individual person synchronises with the music, but also the people present synchronise with each other. They all move to the same rhythm in their own individual way. There is evidence that synchronised movements can lead to more sympathy, helpfulness and connectedness. By feeling the latter, listening to music can also lead to an increased release of hormones that are usually released during feelings of happiness through experiencing social bonds. This includes, for example, situations such as the birth of a child or parental security.

The Emotional Power of Music

The Emotional Power of Music

Multidisciplinary perspectives on musical arousal, expression, and social control

Other hormones can be released by music, such as dopamine, popularly known as the happiness hormone. Listening to music with which you associate particularly positive memories and which gives you goose bumps leads to the release of dopamine. You feel fun and joy, similar to listening to a birthday serenade. If you are particularly happy about a serenade, a few tears of joy may roll down your cheeks. In fact, music can also influence other bodily functions such as the activity of the tear glands.

Whether it is singing a birthday song together or going to a concert together, these activities greatly increase the feeling of togetherness. They show that you belong to the same circle of friends, or share the same (musical) interests, or at least that you belong to a group. And furthermore, people often turn to music in those places where they cannot find the words to express their feelings to others.

Back to the initial example. Such stressful days are exhausting and you have the feeling that nothing works out as it should. It quickly happens that you get into a kind of thought carousel, according to the motto: if one thing goes wrong, the whole day is over. But that is just a trick of the subconscious. The subconscious is very good at repeating the same, often negative thoughts over and over again. These thought loops are sometimes very strong, like a maelstrom that you can hardly get out of. With the help of music, this is much easier. Through music, these thought carousels can be stopped and diverted to other emotional states..

So music can lead to interrupting trains of thought. A completely different and yet somehow similar kind of interruption through music happens during sleep when the alarm clock rings. Why does that actually wake you up? Every human being has a kind of auditory-visual warning system. This leads to heightened alertness and increased auditory and visual sensitivity in the event of anxiety, fear or fright. Everyone knows this when hearing sirens. Another example is suddenly waking up to loud music in the neighbourhood. The alarm clock also wakes you up in the morning. And if you really do get scared for some reason, music can fortunately help you to calm down again..

Whether frightening, distracting, triggering feelings of happiness, fun and tears, strengthening group affiliation, connection and sympathy, activating, or calming - emotions can be generated and regulated through music. Neurological studies show that music can actually activate those areas of the brain that represent the emotion-related core areas.

Sometimes the most beautiful thing on a grey, dark day is to turn on music and dance to it. Who does not know that?

Michael Spitzer, A History of Emotion in Western Music

A History of Emotion in Western Music

Ranging from Gregorian chant to Beyoncé, combining intellectual history, music studies, philosophy, and cognitive psychology

Bettina Zeidler

Bettina Zeidler is a systematic musicologist and currently Doktorandin an der Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz (AT).

Her project is dedicated to the auditory perception of autistic children, with the aim of supporting them as early as possible and in the best possible way on their individual path.

Basically, her professional focus is on neuromusicology and music psychology.

Bettina Zeidler
Verband deutscher MusikschulenBundesverband der Freien MusikschulenJeunesses Musicales DeutschlandFrankfurter Tonkünstler-BundBundes­verb­and deutscher Lieb­haber-OrchesterStützpunkt­händ­ler der Wiener Urtext Edition

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