Music Psychology and Effects of Music
To quote Stevie Wonder, "Music is world within itself, with a language we all understand...."--music acts as a language, with or without words, serving as a platform for people from all walks of life to express their deepest and most profound thoughts and emotions. As such, Leo Tolstoy has described music as "the shorthand of emotion".
Of course, the musical experience goes beyond simply listening to it: as an exercise in creativity, and as a social activity, music involves considerable emotional and cognitive investment, whether in terms of its creation or its performance. Despite its widespread presence and relevance in our societies, music’s effects on the human mind are only beginning to be understood.
The search for answers into music’s impact on the human mind has attracted scholars and researchers from a wide array of disciplines, including computer science, musicology, anthropology, and psychology. From its effects on depression and social attitudes, to research on its benefits in education, music psychology represents an exciting exploration of the magic that is music, as well as its involvement in the mystery that is the human mind.
With or without lyrics, music conveys a message, an emotional message that reaches down into our heart, stirring deepest of feelings and emotions.
Above: Copy of Jakobus Stainer, 18th century. Photo: Frinck
While searching for a definition of music can yield as many as 27 different definitions for the single word “music”, for the purposes of this web page and site, the term “music” is defined in its most common form as:
A “rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic grouping of sounds” composed in such a way that it forms a unified whole “so as to convey a message, to communicate, or to entertain.” Music definition is based on the OnMusic Dictionary
Another definition of music: Vocal or instrumental sounds (or a combination of the two), which are combined so as to “produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.” (Based on Oxford Dictionaries).
Applications of Music Psychology
Encompassing multiple disciplines, music psychology represents an excellent approach to understanding the phenomenon of the psychological effects of music, and how it can be harnessed to benefit individuals and societies.
Music psychology examines the psychological processes underlying activities such as playing, listening to, and composing music, with psychologists, neuroscientists, linguists, educators, and computer scientists contributing to this treasure trove of knowledge.
Through extensive research, scholars and professionals have been able to identify numerous applications for music psychology, including:
Music-based treatments for a wide range of disorders, including bipolar disorder, depression, and memory impairments
Extracurricular activities that foster academic performance
Parenting and social activities that foster prosocial behavior
Music as a marketing strategy
Elements and Structure of Music As It Affects Emotions and the Mind
Music can be a positive force for mental health, calming, relaxing, intellectually stimulating. This is true for adults, teens and children. Music can and does affect our emotions, it can create "channels" in our mind, patterns of thinking. It can impart ideas and ideologies, powerfully and emotionally conveying a way of life.
Our choices in music, the intensity and frequency of the music we listen to, can have a bearing on our mental health, both in a positive way and in a way that can create imbalance. Some of the greatest composers were borderline geniuses, but also, many had personalities that could be described as deeply emotional or even volatile. Both mood and mood disorders can be affected by both the type, intensity, and amount of music we listen to.
When we listen to music, we can internalize the emotions, so that the emotions of the composer, the band or singer, become a part of us. For the time we listen to and identify with the music, we have a spiritual connection, a bonding, with the one or ones who are singing, playing, and/or who composed the music.
Music can be interpreted in different ways. Even the same music performed by the same composer, can convey a message of sadness and joy, loyalty or anger and betrayal, depending on the manner in which he/she chooses to convey the message.
Music can be used in a positive way to bridge gaps, to create a bond between people who might otherwise have little in common. It can convey a message of peace and brotherhood, relax, soothe.
At the same time, music has been used historically to glorify war and patriotism, such as when the Americans conquered the British in the War of 1812, and the resultant song, the Star Spangled Banner that went on to become the national anthem of the United States; also, consider classical pieces by German composer and theater director Richard Wagner (pronounced Vagner), which were used by Hitler to stir patriotic fervor in the masses.
Children, teens, and even babies potentially benefit from listening to music, as music can be a stimulant to intellectual and cognitive development. At the same time, parents should choose carefully the type of music they play for the baby and child, as well as what music the mother listens to while carrying the baby in the womb.
The Many Facets of the Psychology of Music—Disciplines and Research
Under the title, Psychology of Music, Oxford University provides a broad synopsis of the subject, stating that the psychology of music focuses on understanding the psychological process involved in:
listening to music
composing or improvising music, and
using empirical, theoretical and computational methods in interpreting as well as producing music
Continuing research in music psychology is done by psychologists, musicologists in various disciplines, and computer scientists. Music psychology research includes:
music perception and cognition
computer modelling of musical capacities in musicians and listeners
music and social psychology
music as it relates to emotion and meaning
music therapy, and the psychological processes
-------Music therapy and speech language pathology (see American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).
-------Music therapy and addictions
psychology of music from a developmental approach
music and consciousness
music and embodiment
music and neuroscience
In addition to the psychology of music, the multidisciplinary modality of the field involves explorations and research in such fields as (Hodges, D. 2003):
anthropology of music
sociology of music
biology of music
physics of music
philosophy of music
The Psychology of Music
As previously mentioned, music is a deep and engaging emotional experience that affects a large cross-section of music lovers. Whether it’s a massive symphony that brings one to tears, or a nostalgic song that speaks of a happy summer; whether it rocks you to sleep or inspires you to travel, music’s effects cannot be understated.
But how does music elicit these effects and make us feel the way we do? Lyrics do play an important role, but what about instrumental music? In order to understand the psychological impact of music we must understand the basic elements of music itself.
Rhythm: Rhythm is the temporal aspect of music and is gives rise to music’s organization and pattern-based nature. The San Francisco Symphony states that you can find rhythm almost "anywhere", in a player dribbling a basketball, a washing machine, raindrops falling, or a runner in the street. Rhythm is what makes "music move and flow".
Rhythm consists of sounds and silences, the repeated patter of these sounds and silences produces the beat, closely related to rhythm. A composer might use numerous rhythms in one piece.
Beat and Meter: Closely related to rhythm is beat and meter. Beats are the fundamental building blocks of rhythm, the basic pulse of music, and are grouped together in measures; you might tap your foot or bang your hand on the table to the beat.
Meter is the organization of strong and weak beat patterns that give rise to rhythm. Most of today’s music is written in 4/4 meter (or 4/4 time); the top (numerator) 4 refers to the number of beats in the measure, the bottom (denominator) 4 refers to the note (1/4 or quarter note) that gets one beat. As another example, a waltz is written in 3/4 time, with 3 beats to a measure rather than 4. Some meters are more complex, and the meter can change throughout a single piece in more-complex musical arrangements.
Pitch: Pitch is the property that organizes sounds along a frequency-based scale; it is the quality that gives ear to classifying a sound as being relatively high or low. Each pitch is referred to as a note and the frequency of sound wave vibrations determine the pitch.
The accepted standard for tuning the majority of musical instruments is a pitch of 440Hz, or 440 cycles per second. Specific pitches are referred to as tones; tones are the fundamental units for the majority of musical scale systems and are organized into octaves ("oct" meaning 8, musical notes range from A to G, 7 notes, then return to A on the 8th note). Western music theorists divide octaves into 12 pitches of relatively equal distance, which are referred to as the Circle of Fifths.
Harmony: In harmony, two or more notes are played simultaneously to form chords. New Scientist in the article, Why Harmony Pleases the Brain states that in harmony the notes can be played at the same time, as well as behind, beneath, or around the melody, supporting the melody and providing "texture and mood".
Melody: With melody, notes are played out in sequence based on rhythm and pitch, producing a complete arrangement, or an arrangement that still needs something to be developed to be complete. Composer Leonard Bernstein describes melody as a series of notes that move along in time, one after another.
Texture: Put simply, texture is how each instrumental (or vocal) section—whether the music is being produced through actual musical instruments or if the sounds are being produced electronically, or both—is layered and interacts with each other.
Timbre: The quality or "color" of a sound disregarding pitch, how we can distinguish one instrument from another. Professor of music David Meckler refers to these adjectives in describing timbre: bright, dark, brassy, reedy, harsh, noisy, thin, buzzy, pure, raspy, shrill, mellow, strained. Meckler states, "I prefer to avoid describing timbre in emotional terms", adjectives such as happy or sad, angry or peaceful, excited or tranquil, which he refers to as emotional descriptions rather than quality of sound (Meckler, D). Even the same instrument played by different musicians can produce a different timbre.
Key: The key, or tonality, of a musical piece is the organization of a piece as is centered on the primary note of a scale that the piece is written in. Keys can be categorized as either major ("happy") or minor ("sad"). The key revolves around a single note, scale, and chord that gives the piece its sense of completion or rest.
Elements of Music: Consonance and Disonnance:
Additional, am important aspect of the elements of music to consider, especially as it relates to the psychology of music are the elements of Consonance and Dissonance.
The impression of stability is provided in a musical piece, a sense of coherence, pleasantness, or rest through consonance. This contrasts with the tension, clash, or grating sound when certain combinations of musical notes or tones come together. Elements of consonance and dissonance can be found numerous times throughout a piece, or in specific sections.
Music and Music Education Benefits for Teens and Children
In the classroom, typically in preschool and kindergarten, soft and calming music is often, almost ubiquitously used to help children to relax at nap time and other times of the day.
Some high schools use classical music through the hallway speaker in the morning periods and other times of the day. One high school teacher in Newark, NJ, plays soft music in the background while her students quietly work. Calming music adds to a peaceful and calm atmosphere in some urban schools.
Other topics on the benefits of positive music in schools, and for children and teens include:
Higher Test Scores and Cognitive Devevelopment; Higher SAT scores
Music teachers can be positive role models, see how.
Learning to play a music instrument helps teens to develop self esteem
Read more on music in schools, teens and children
Music and Teens - Developing Self Esteem
"I love my piano lessons,"
said a 14 year old girl when she began studying piano. Active participation in playing music and music appreciation has been demonstrated to increase self-esteem.
One teenager who was diagnosed with ADHD
said that she had difficulty connecting with other teenagers in school. Learning to play piano during her teenage years, filled many vacant hours, staved off boredom, but also contributed to her development of self-esteem, which sometimes can be damaged when a teenager is diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Read more
on music education and self esteem
The Psychology of Music - Teenagers and Children Benefit from being Exposed and Learning to Enjoy a Wide Variety of Music
There are many positive benefits for children and teenagers to be actively involved in learning about a wide variety of music, as well as in learning to play a musical instrument. By learning about and being exposed to a wide variety of music, "widening out" in their musical taste, a teenager can get a better perspective on cultural history, and where the music of today fits into the broader picture of music throughout history.
There have been centuries of rich cultural heritage in many diverse cultures which have produced a wide variety of fascinating styles of music, much broader in scope and emotion than what might be popular at this point in time with commercial and pop, hop-hop and rock music, along with their various offshoots or progeny in various, current modes of popular music. Read more on benefits of music education
Misogyny, Commercialization of Sex in Popular Music and Music Videos -
It's Effect on Teenagers and Children
The Birth of Rock and Roll - Jazz
- Drug Culture - Teen Rebellion
Positive benefits of poetry therapy
Music, Psychology, Intensity and Effects
On the other side of the coin, music such as hard core, hard rock, punk, and hard alternative, take your mind to highs and lows in your mood on what can be a wild mental-chemical roller coaster ride, for many, day in and out. Hip hop may also increase the mental excitement level of the listener. Music of all types affects emotions. Science indicates that the dopamine level in our mind is elevated by listening to or playing exciting music.
Angus Young of hard rock band AC/DC. June 2001, Cologne, Germany
Is listening to pop music linked with Major Depression in teens?
- See: Teen Depression
- Association Between Media Use in Adolescence and Major Depression
- Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) in Young Adulthood
Everyone's mind is wired differently. There is a complex predisposition in our bodies and minds which combines with psycho-social factors, such as the dynamics of family life, workplace or school environment, interpersonal relationships and inherited emotional makeup (
See Urie Bronfenbrenner's Bioecological Model of mental health.
For individuals who are musically inclined, and at the same time deeply emotional, listening to music may affect them on a deeper level than others.
Associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, Joel Nigg, in his book, What Causes ADHD? explains that there is most likely a combination of pregenetic predisposition along with environmental factors which lead to symptoms of ADHD in some children. The same principle most likely applies with mood disorders and with various influences on mental health, including media and music.
There is a combination of environmental, along with pre-genetic predisposition, which influences the way the brain processes information, so that certain environmental factors might illicit symptomatic responses associated with certain mental health disorders. Therefore, for some individuals, intense music might be one factor contributing to symptoms of certain mental health disorders.
Because music has been demonstrated to affect the level of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, then it is not a far stretch to conclude that music might be involved with certain mental health disorders, any more than it is not a stretch to conclude that illicit drug use can result in symptoms of mental health disorders.
Though the affect might not be as intense with listening to music as it would be with taking drugs, a similar principle applies, that the chemistry of the emotions and mind itself is being altered through an external source, in the case of music, a less direct connection than with taking drugs, but there is an affect nonetheless.
Music, Psychology and Mental Health Disorders
One well known example of a singer with mental health difficulties is Axel Rose the hard rock singer well known for his bipolar disorder, of the group Guns 'n Roses. To what extent does is his disorder affected by the intensity and frequency of the music that he performs? Also, to be considered, as one listens intently, identifies with the mood and emotions of a song, an entire CD, and when listens daily to that music, on the radio, car stereo, iPod or some other way, the emotions of that music become one's own emotions.
In a similar way that a brain cell transmits an electrical current through the axon to the dendrite, skips the gap chemically, to start again to the next brain cell and start the process anew, musical energy is transmitted electrically from one person or group to another through modern technology.
Joel Robertson, Ph.D., documents the impact both in a positive and detrimental way music can have on mental health, in areas such as depression, and also, by extension, bipolar disorder, in his book Natural Prozac.
Those emotions, then, are transmitted through our sense and become our own. If those emotions are happy and positive, our brain will assimilate those emotions, if they are angry or emotionally pained, our minds similarly assimilate those same emotions, which are apparent in the brain through combinations of neurotransmitters and thought patterns.
The electro-chemical patterns in the composer's mind, then, influence the electro-chemical composition in another's mind, or in the minds of masses of people.
Music, then, and mass media, has tremendous influence on both the culture, mental and emotional state, as well as the chemical balance of millions of minds.
As a general recommendation, by mellowing out in our taste in music, toning down the intensity and quantity of music we daily listen to, our mental health can be positively affected.
Psychology of Music and Its Impact On the Mind, Mental Health Disorders
Music can have a calming influence and instill a feeling of well being.
Our genetic makeup has a bearing in the way the brain processes music. Some listen to music as something light and in the background, for others we absorb every note, every emotion, and it becomes a deep part of our psychological profile.
Since young people and, today, children, often times listen to hours of music daily from many sources, it helps shed light on the impact that music might be having in terms of the mental health of children
and teen mood disorders
Some have noted today that persons who are very talented musically, creators of new and innovative music, have a tendency towards mental health disorders. Music borders on the spiritual. It can be something that stirs up from the very depths of one's soul, one's emotion, and is subject of study in emotion psychology.
It is not surprising, then, that some psychologists acknowledge and have written about the affectt that music can have in mental health and how the chemical balance of our minds can be affected. Music can be a highly emotional form of communication.
Ann Olson, PsyD, a mental health counselor and author of Illuminating Schizophenia: Insights Into the Uncommon Mind, encourage those with schizophrenia to listen to music without lyrics.
Olson, who herself suffers with schizophrenia, notes that the lyrics can sometimes take on deeply personal meaning for those with schizophrenia, so that it can affects ones thoughts about oneself, and stir up mental battles related to schizophrenia. Suggestions in songs are internalized by the schizophrenic, in a way that contributes to a blurring of reality, contributing to psychosis.
In the same way that children under a certain age usually have difficult differentiating between fantasy and reality, the schizophrenic has difficulty processing lyrical suggestions made in songs that they have internalized.
On the positive side, music has been used both on a personal level, in education and in professional therapy, called, obviously, music therapy, to impart pleasant thoughts and to calm the mind. Music therapy is a specific branch of psychology that has already been developed and is being used in a clinical setting.
Like Art Therapy, Music Therapy is an evidence-based clinical practice using music intervention with a patient or client and Board certified Music Therapist. Music Therapists in the United States hold a MT-BC credential, which is issued by the Certification Board for Music Therapists.
Music Therapy in this context is not a self-help way of coping with anxieties, depression, or other mental health issues or emotional needs. It is more than a “feel-good” self-administered treatment, but it is a specific medical discipline that helps patients or clients achieve specific goals in a therapeutic context.
The abilities or skills gained through music therapy can then be transferred for us in other parts of the lives of those utilizing Music Therapy. This approach is very similar to the approach taken by Art Therapy, where a licensed practicioner using as art therapy with clients. This is in contrast to art’s use as a self-help tool, which is quite different, but equally as valid, depending on the needs of the individual.
The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) outlines numerous avenues for use of and research in music therapy, among the following:
music facilitating physical movement
increasing people's motivation towards better engagement with other forms of treatment
providing of emotional support for both clients and for clients’ families
music facilitating an outlet for expression of feelings
References for Music Psychology page:
1. Bernstein, L. (2009). Young People's Concert: What Is Melody? The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.leonardbernstein.com/ypc_script_what_is_melody.htm
2. Catterall, James S., Richard Chapleau, and John Iwanaga. "Involvement in the Arts and Human Development: General Involvement and Intensive Involvement in Music and Theater Arts." Los Angeles, CA: The Imagination Project at UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, 1999. NELS:88, National Education Longitudinal Survey)
3. Connors, Abigail, (August 2009). Listen! music matters - Seven surprising benefits of music education. NJ Family.
4. Could Pop Music Be Linked to Depression? Preliminary study found those who listened to lots of tunes had raised risk - April 4, 2011 - U.S. News & World Report
5. Definition of Music. Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved March 27, 2015 from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/music
6. Grossman, L. (2011, September). Why Harmony Pleases the Brain. New Scientist.
7. Hamman, D. L., Walker, L., (1993). Music Teachers as Role Models for African American Students.Journal of Research in Music Education, Vol. 41, No. 4, 303-314, (1993). DOI: 10.2307/3345506.
8. Hodges, D. (2003) Music education and music psychology: What‟s the connection? Research Studies in Music Education. 21, 31-44.
Intro to Beats: What are Beats, Meter, and Rhythm?
EarSketch. Retrieved March 28, 2015 from http://earsketch.gatech.edu/learning/intro-to-beats/what-is-a-beat-meter-rhythm
10. Meckler, D. Elements of Music. San Mateo Community College
. Retrieved March 27, 2015
11. Musical Keys and the Circle of Fifths. Music for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Retrieved March 27, 2015 from
12. Music Definition. Dictionary OnMusic. Retrieved March 27, 2015 from http://dictionary.onmusic.org/search?utf8=%E2%9C%93&term_search%5Bquery%5D=music&commit=Search
13. Music Education Online. Children's Music Workshop. (Retrieved August 4, 2009). http://www.schoolmusictoday.com/advocacy/benefits.html
14. Music: Pathology. (1938, May 2). Time Magazine.
15. Nypaver, A. What Is Pitch in Music? - Definition, Lesson & Quiz. . Retrieved March 28, 2015 from http://study.com/academy/lesson/what-is-pitch-in-music-definition-lesson-quiz.html
16. Ratliff, B., (June 3, 2008). Bo Diddley, Who Gave Rock and Roll His Beat, Dies at 79. New York Times.
17. Robertson, J., (1998). Natural Prozac. San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco.
18. Rhythm. SFS Kids.org. San Francisco Symphony. Retrieved March 28, 2015 from
19. Speech-Language Therapy and Music Therapy Collaboration: The Dos, the Don’ts, and the “Why Nots?” (2011, October 4). Music therapy and Speech-Language Pathology. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). ASHA sphere.
20. Woody, R.H., (2013, May 3). How Practicing Less Can Foster Musical Growth. Psychology Today.
Off-site Links Related to Music Psychology
Does Music Affect a Fetus? Discovery Channel documentary video
Responsible Hip-Hop - Why one rapper rejects hate messages of L'il Wayne and gangsta rap. Article/Interview with rapper DEE1 - DR BOYCE WATKINS: WHY THIS RAPPER TURNED DOWN A DEAL FROM LIL WAYNE’S LABEL
The fetus responds to music in the womb. The fetus reacts to music. (It does not seem to enjoy hip-hop).
Music to listen to: (Off-site links)
Simple Pachelbel Canon
Johann Strauss - Emporer's Waltz - Youth Orchestra
Emporer's Waltz Andre Rieu - and ballet.
Air on G-String
Air on G-String - Single Acoustic Classical Guitar
Air on G-String Sheet Music
Beautiful CD Music Store for Youth, Children, Expectant Mothers
Pages Related to Music Psychology
Music and Bipolar Disorder
Music History - The History and Psychology of Rock and Roll - and Jazz
Teen Depression and Music - Pop music and teen depression link - Based on clinical study
The Psychology of Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana and pop-music for girls
Misogyny in Commercial/Pop and Rap Music