When a fellow blogger asked what the science/psychology behind music and its positive effects on motivation and mood might be, and of course, my virtual ears perked up, and I decided to do some exploring.
Music can activate several brain structures, including the amygdala, which is involved in trauma responses. Processing music is complex and involves different parts of the brain for different aspects of the sensory input, like pitch, timbre, rhythm, and emotional content.
Connection to mood
While poking around looking for information on this topic, I didn’t come across too much that was specific to mental illness. One thing I did find rather interesting was that depression appears to be more common in people with inner ear disorders, tinnitus, and hearing impairment. That’s a correlation, which doesn’t suggest causation in either direction, but it’s still an interesting finding.
One study found that morning exposure to birdsong enhanced with music improved mood and decreased depressive symptoms. Another study showed that binaural beats, involving slightly different frequencies delivered to each ear, could improve mood and psychomotor performance.
People with ruminative coping styles may be more drawn to music that’s likely to worsen their mood and perpetuate rumination. Rumination is common in depression, but depression can interfere with self-awareness, so this musically triggered worsening of mood might not be noticed.
The relationship between depressive anhedonia and reaction to music was examined in a study that used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In the control group, there was a significant difference in activation in two key areas of the brain. This effect was reduced in the depression group, and the extent of reduction was consistent with self-reported anhedonia in other aspects of participants’ lives.
Some studies have shown that music can decrease pre-operative stress. One study even showed that playing music to unconscious patients via headphones during surgery reduced the amount of anaesthetic that was required through the procedure.
Music and cognition
One way that music may improve cognitive function is by activating more neurons in the right brain. The “Mozart effect” is the idea that cognition improves from listening to Mozart. However, there are mixed results as to whether this is actually true.
In one study, music was associated with improvements in focused attention post-stroke, compared to no improvement in a control group.
Music and its tempo can impact whether we feel like time is passing quickly or slowly.
Musical chills and reward pathways
Frisson, or musical chills, occurs when a musical stimulus causes an emotional pleasure response, leading to skin tingling, chills, and sometimes goosebumps. Musical chills are more likely to occur when the music somehow does something unexpected, such as with unexpected harmonies or volume modulations.
Pleasurable music activates the same dopamine reward pathways as other pleasurable stimuli. Peak dopamine release occurs during musical “chills.” One paper I found suggested that expectation is key to the dopamine response, and this can be predicted by Bayes’ theorem. I didn’t have quite the brain power to figure out the nitty gritty of that, but it sounds like it’s a lot less random than you might think.
Administration of the opioid blocker naltrexone diminishes the musical chills response. It affects the body’s endogenous opioid system, which also links with dopamine reward pathways.
My own experience
I find any significant source of noise distracting when I’m trying to do other things. My concentration is already bad enough, and I find it really hard to read or write with music playing. I pretty much only listen to music while I’m driving. I prefer tunes that are pitched not too much above where my mood is; trying to listen to more uptempo music just feels annoying.
When I’m feeling suicidal, there are a couple of songs I tend to listen to that are intended to be anti-suicide but they become pro-suicide in my mind. I don’t think I spend enough time in my car listening for my mood to be impacted all that much, but who knows, maybe it does make things worse.
How does music fit into your life, and does it affect your wellbeing?
- Canbeyli, R. (2013). Sensorimotor modulation of mood and depression: in search of an optimal mode of stimulation. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 428.
- Gebauer, L., Kringelbach, M. L., & Vuust, P. (2012). Ever-changing cycles of musical pleasure: The role of dopamine and anticipation. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 22(2), 152.
- Harvard Men’s Health Watch (2011): Music and health
- Psychology Today: Music, emotion, and well-being
- Stewart, J., Garrido, S., Hense, C., & McFerran, K. (2019). Music use for mood regulation: self-awareness and conscious listening choices in young people with tendencies to depression. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 1199.
- Wikipedia: Frisson
The COVID-19/Mental Health Coping Toolkit page has a wide range of resources to support better mental health and wellbeing.