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. Thank you so much for the mention ashleyleia!! I have disappeared and for that I am so sorry! Life got pretty rough after my last post…and even writing wasn’t helping. Trying to face all the mental trauma on my own… which by the way… don’t ever try to battle demons alone. Just saying… you need your friends and family… Music wasn’t helping, nothing was helping. Then I found my footing in August and started utilizing Live videos to share my truth and passion. I am still working out the kinks… but I will be back … hopefully I can work some time management tricks and get some posts up soon! Thank you again for the research!!! You are awesome!

  2. I don’t drive anymore, but when I did I used to listen to classical music or jazz when I was on the freeway. I am also too distracted by music — especially upbeat music — to listen to it when I’m doing anything else. If I listen to music at home, it’s for the purpose of tuning into the music and nothing else. Also, music “plays in my head” a lot. That’s something that I’m used to, and it’s not usually distracting. Interesting and informative post.

  3. It might be an interesting study. I’m a musician, of course, so that might have something to do with the phenomenon. However, I’ve met others who are not musicians who say that music plays in their heads at most times.

    My mind also unconsciously keeps altering the nature of the inner music, throwing in little ornaments, messing with tempos, and that kind of thing. It’s probably the phenomenon that caused me to take to composing, early in life.

    I do find it MUCH easier to ignore than music that’s being played externally, if I need to focus on a specific task. It’s possible that external music interferes with the internal music, and that this conflict is disorientating.

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