BABE IT’S OUR SONG: Music Psychology and Why You Can’t Stop Listening

Music. It can replay your most vivid memories, remember all your best times, and renew emotions you’d thought had long passed. You can study a textbook for hours and remember nothing, but a song from seventh grade comes on and you know every word. And something about a cute boy playing an acoustic guitar will melt any girl’s heart. But why? What is it about music that it seems to be so vividly engrained in our minds and hearts?

Charles Darwin in the past had hypothesized that music was associated with intelligence and physical dexterity, and that’s what attracts someone to a potential mate who plays music. That is one theory: that music sticks with us because we associate it with the basic principles of mating (sex, intelligence, survival of the fittest, etc.) However, another study done at Dartmouth College suggested that we can associate emotions with music because it mimics certain physical postures and movements with sound.

parts of the brain that react strongly to sound
parts of the brain that react strongly to sound

But on a more psychological level, the music that sticks with us is the music we can relate to. The song that was playing during your first dance, the song you listened to on repeat when she dumped you, the song that played when you realized you were in love with him. Perhaps it is just coincidence that music seems to make an appearance in crucial moments in our lives.

It has been hypothesized that music doesn’t affect our relationships; there is very little evidence and research on music affecting relationships. Rather, we seek out and select music based on the kinds of relationships and emotions we are pursuing. This article from “The Science of Relationships” starts off with a perfect example:

“As you sit down for a romantic dinner with your partner, you’ve thought of everything: great food, fine china, candles, and a nice bottle of wine. Now you just need a little music to set the mood, so you put on Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” This will certainly set a mood (i.e., confusion), but probably not the mood (i.e., romance).”

Another study suggests that favorite music genre is linked to personality type. This could lead one to believe that maybe we’re drawn to people with similar music tastes to us because their personality lines up nicely with ours.

rundown of personality types from psych central
rundown of personality types from psych central

But at the root of music is sound. And sound has been tested and proven to have a huge effect on the brain. An article on the Psychology of Sound outlines how different regions and functions of the brain react to sound:

  • Brain stem reflex: acoustic characteristics of sound (i.e. volume or dissonance) can signal urgency or importance and cause us to react on an instinctual level
  • Evaluative conditioning: An emotion can be elicited by a sound because we’ve heard it repeatedly in a certain setting, and it causes a strong association.
  • Emotional contagion: we perceive what we believe to be the emotion of a song, and react accordingly.
  • Visual imagery: the sound and rhythm of a song cause us to imagine certain scenes or sensations, like how an ascending melody is associated with upwards movement or flying.
  • Episodic memory: the “babe, this is our song!” thing
  • Music expectancy: when music takes a turn in melody or beat we didn’t expect, and it causes curiosity or confusion (perhaps why the “bass drop” is so popular now?)

But what about the people making the music? Did Adele sit down and write “Someone Like You” and think, “yes. Sooooooo many people are going to cry listening to this song. I’m stoked!” Or did they simply play their emotions and we, the listeners, related? I wanted to learn a little more about how musicians use music to influence their audience. So I took my questions to Cal Poly’s insanely underrated music department.

The first person I ran into was a alumni by the name of Kyler Fischer. His band, CHUNK, was having an album release October 31. When asked how he used music to influence his audience, he said, “a lot of my music that I write and record is purely inspire by emotions that I’m feeling. Whether that emotion is happy or sad or angry, I always try to channel my positive and negative emotions into the art that is music, and you can definitely see that on this album. A lot of it is pretty heavy.”

Music student James Gallardo was quoted as saying music “definitely” affects his emotions, and he is pursuing it to have any career in music, although he doesn’t have a specific on in mind.

Finally, Professor Christopher Woodruff, Associate Director of Bands spoke on the difference between major and minor scale and how they are used to emulate emotions. “There is a Swedish or Czech group or something, and they take songs in Major scale and switch them to Minor, and Minor to Major, and it’s fascinating because just by changing the scale, you change the entire mood and feeling of that song.”

[[Not sure if THIS is the group Prof. Woodruff was talking about, but these are some popular songs that switched from either major –> minor, or vice versa.]]


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