How Music Affects the Brain and Mood

How music affects the brain and mood

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 brainpower 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?

Michigan Counseling and Referral Services has an interesting post on Panning Music for Neurodivergence.


Mental health coping toolkit

The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.

50 thoughts on “How Music Affects the Brain and Mood”

  1. I have spent a great deal of time trying to inundate my life with the art of the music playlist. Right now, I am at the point where I am satisfied with an extensive playlist that I created from my personal favorites. Something I learned throughout getting here is that music with lyrics is important to decipher a bit before listening to extensively. Sometimes I listen to the lyrics, sometimes it’s the music. But, music really is my everything!

  2. I love music, it is my friend. It can make me happy but also very depressed. I know which song is for what. When I became depressed this love for music didn’t vanish but it is on the back burner. I can’t concentrate enough to enjoy it. Very strange as I listened to music all the time since I was 12 or 13.

  3. I live for music, it has been my whole life. My grandfather started me singing with him Bluegrass Gospel. After he passed I learned the piano, traveled playing and singing.
    When I am in a down mood I sit at my home organ and play, it lifts my spirit.
    There must be a connection with music and operations, etc.,
    When I go to the MRI they have a system in place, they give you headphones, ask you what type of music you like. They play it during the exam, my guess is to keep you calm.
    Yes, for me music is healing for me.

  4. That’s all very interesting! πŸ™‚
    It’s really intriguing to me with rumination vs listening to music that makes it worse, I wonder if it works like this for me as a ruminator. I guess not, because a lot of the time I feel like music helps me calm down my brain, or even distract it, but then on the other hand I listen to music most actively in the evening/night hours and that’s when my rumination is the worst so perhaps there is some corelation. I will have to look closer into it and who knows…
    When I’m really depressed I also find more upbeat music annoying and kind of distracting in a bad way. Sometimes when I’m depressed it’s mad how my brain can interpret very cheerful, happy or just neutral lyrics to have some very gloomy, sinister or cynical meanings. πŸ˜€ If I want music to help lift up my mood I always do it so that first I listen to something as depressive as only possible, which feels like a sort of outlet and something that I can relate to, sometimes if the cause of my dip is some kind of a general emotional overload where I’m having self-harm urges and stuff it might help me to release some of my emotions in a healthier way like crying for example, sometimes not. Then when I feel more or less ready to move on I listen to something calm and minor-sounding but generally with a
    positive feel to it, something very soothing, and then I move on to something upbeat and cheerful. That sometimes helps with my mood, sometimes a little, sometimes a bit more, and sometimes such a gradual transition just does so much that I can listen to more upbeat music without feeling aggravated by it.
    I am generally not easily distracted by background noise unless it feels somehow negative so I’m happy to write, read, or do almost anything else with music in the background, I actually find it helpful firstly because of my sensory anxiety and secondly because it can make me feel more creative when doing something requiring some degree of creativity. Music also helps me greatly with anxiety in a lot of ways and it generally has a tremendous influence on my life and has always had.

  5. I have a playlist of just all my fave songs, a play list of alternative faves from the 90s (good for any angry/angsty moods), and a soft rock playlist for when I’m sad/depressed/or have a migraine but want to listen to some low music that won’t make it worse.

  6. Music is a HUGE part of my life. Perhaps for the reasons you’ve cited where someone is unable to stop seeking out that which helps them ‘wallow’ in their depression or feel worse etc. I’m not drawn solely to ‘sad or melancholy’ music though. I love a wide variety of different styles and songs, and some of those become ‘back ground’ music for my life. Music also stops my ‘racing brain’ . I FEEL more when I hear some good music that I really enjoy. Not always feel better, but at least I do feel something. It’s great!

  7. I need to chill with music, it saved my life. I bet some people think I got almost nothing, but the soundtrack is soooo good!

  8. My mood and emotions definitely have a very strong response to music. I agree that it can be a distraction, especially if it’s something powerful that really revs my feelings up haha (that “musical chill” you spoke of!). Usually I can write with it playing if the music has no lyrics – like classical or film scores. But some days even that is too much! πŸ™‚ A very interesting post that I connected with a lot – since music has always been an “emotional springboard” for me πŸ™‚

  9. I think in the past music had a very powerful effect on me…both my mood and my outlook. When I worked for the record company I became almost obsessive about adopting the culture and attitudes of the bands I listened to, went to see, and in some cases had chance to meet.

    I remember lyrics of songs that would haunt me for a long time. I had to break free at some point and give my mind some peace and quiet.

    When I introduced music again I was more balanced. I listened to a variety of genres including classical music. But I would limit the time I spent listening to music and I would never listen to the same artist over and over. I was utterly disenchanted with the behaviour I saw when I worked in the music industry.

    But I love music. I like it when it is part of social events (I love karaoke) and I love to dance. I like songs that cheer me up. I like songs that are sad and give me the chance to shed a few tears (because I am a big believer in the miracle of crying). Some music is just so beautiful, it adds something to treasure chest of all the exquisite things that make life sensational.

  10. Music and it’s influence on the brain is a very interesting topic no doubt, I’m glad you tackled it. I’m also a bit surprised you couldn’t find more, I would think it’s a highly studied issue.

    I remember as a teenager when my parents were splitting up noticing my mom no longer could stand music she’d once loved but was not associated with the last several years of their marriage. It wasn’t strange or confusing to me, I loved music and already noticed its effects on my mood and thoughts, but it stuck with me, the way that trauma plays out.

    Now as an adult I too am not interested in certain songs or artists because they remind me of a thing, things, and/or time I don’t care to revisit. It’s sad really, just as I thought it was for my mother. In these days of anxiety (of mine) I find I don’t listen to music as much as I did a decade ago. I guess it’s because I don’t want the music to influence my mood and take me to a place that isn’t as real as I think. I think much of this is unfounded. When I do listen to music I feel many emotions, most of which are good and wonder if I shouldn’t start listening to music more. But I am reticent, almost like social anxiety, I have music anxiety.

    While some music has the potential to spiral me into an episode I’ve found more often than not that music can make me so overjoyed I cry with the hope that happiness in troubling times can bring.

    Thanks for sharing, looking into this, and starting the conversation.

    1. There’s some music that definitely has strong connections to certain places and times in my life. For me, that’s always been a good thing, but I can see how that could be a real problem when it’s connected to difficult times.

  11. Second paragraph should say “…no longer could stand music she’d once loved but was then associated with the last several years of their marriage.”

  12. Sorry I don’t know how to edit my comments after I post them or else I would instead of adding more comments. πŸ˜‰ But I want to add that I almost always listen to music when I’m exercising, unless I’m watching/practicing a video from However there are days when I go for a run but music feels like a distraction.

    1. I don’t think there’s a way to edit comments that you’ve already been posted on someone else’s blog.

      That’s interesting that music is sometimes distracting from a run. I’ve never been a runner myself, but I wouldn’t have guessed that.

      1. It is kind of a strange thing, considering how much I LOVE to listen to music while I run. But there are times where I just want to be present, hear ALL the sounds around me, and think. Music kind of drives my thoughts in certain directions while running without music allows my brain to wander more openly with the run.

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