Think about your favorite song or songs for a moment. What is it about it that you like so much? What part of it gets your foot tapping or you singing as loud as you dare to? I'll share you one of my favorite songs by a band called Of A Revolution, or O.A.R., for short. It's called "Whatever Happened" and for me the part that really has a powerful effect on me starts at the 0:40 second mark and continues for 20 seconds until the vocals kick in. The wobbling tones, giving way to the drums and the bass saxophone?!?! With the lyrics (below) and music, the song hits me in a place I struggle to describe and it always sounds better when this particular song is played at high volume.
It's been a long way back from the edge of that
Saw the world from the hill
I'm right back where it started
And it still feels right like the very first time
Saw the world like a kid
Let's write another story tonight
But it's more than just the music, but what is it about a song that can evoke such powerful emotions?
Some people (who are FAR MORE educated on this topic) have brought their knowledge and experience to bear on this topic so let's delve into it. Dr. Kimberly Sena Moore of Psychology Today and University of Miami’s Frost School of Music writes that the reason listening to music makes us feel good is as follows: It can be argued that music is a core function in our brains. Our brains are wired from the beginning to process and understand music. Yet music has always been sort of a mystery, especially since it's not typically considered "necessary" for survival. That is reserved for the trifecta of food, sex, and sleep.
The study conducted by researchers at McGill University in Canada in 2011 use PET (positron emission tomography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagining) techniques to scan the brains of the eight participants as they listened to music over the course of three sessions. And without getting too deep into the science behind it, those positive feelings I have about the O.A.R. song come from the happy and fun memories I have associated with the song and my wife, but also because, you guessed it, dopamine.
Dopamine, otherwise known as the "feel good" chemical. A neurotransmitter, by nature, dopamine plays a role in how we feel pleasure. It helps us strive, focus, and find things interesting. It also is a big part of our unique human ability to think and plan. The connection between the memories and the song itself have created a link that will forever be a surefire dose of dopamine, making me feel good every time I hear the song. Each time you hear one of those songs, you get that little boost of good feelings. But that's not all music does for you... Dr. Shahram Heshmat, also of Psychology Today elaborates in his post from August of 2019, "One of the most important issues in the psychology of music is how music affects emotional experience (Juslin, 2019). Music has the ability to evoke powerful emotional responses such as chills and thrills in listeners.
Dr. Heshmat states that there are at least 10 different ways that listening to music elicits an emotional response in humans. They are, musical pleasure, musical anticipation, refined emotions, memories (like mine), action tendency, emotional mimicry, consumer behavior, mood regulation, time perception and identity development. And when you read through his post, I am CERTAIN you will be able to identify to some, if not all of them in one way or another. But for the next portion, we need to get a little bit sad.
But what about that sad song? What about the time you had just been dumped or are dealing with loss? It doesn't seem possible that the same music that gave you that dose of "awwww yeah!" feeling could do the same under the same circumstances. We turn our attention to the band R.E.M. and their song "Everybody Hurts".
We all know the feeling of wanting to escape. We crave this during periods of extreme stress, grief or trouble. During this time, many of us, turn to music to help us feel better. Dr. Heshmat explains in his paragraph regarding mood regulation, "...sad music enables the listener to disengage from the distressing situations (breakup, death, etc.), and focus instead on the beauty of the music." Through the lyrics of "Everybody Hurts" we can find a relationship to the sad events that have happened in our lives and know that the voice we might struggle to have at the time, is a shared experience and that we're not alone.
When your day is long
And the night, the night is yours alone
When you're sure you've had enough
Of this life, well hang on
Don't let yourself go
'Cause everybody cries
Everybody hurts sometimes
Dr. Moore, once again, lends her insight to our discussion because when it comes to sad music, we cannot simply focus on the lyrics. "After all, music itself is a highly complex stimulus and humans have complex and individualized reactions to music. Thus, it would not be possible to provide a thorough examination of all characteristics associated with sad music." Rather, she mentions three specific points to pay attention to when it relates to melancholy music and sad situations. Dr. Moore explains in part, these three things below.
Modes involve the arrangement and ordering of musical notes in a particular key. It’s this arrangement of notes that create the chords we hear, which lend themselves to our perception of a piece’s tonality. (Tonality describes the "color" of a musical piece and is based on which chords and harmonies are more important than others in a given musical work.)
Tempo refers to the speed, or pace, of a musical piece. As with modes, tempo is also used as a way to express emotions. In fact, it’s generally considered to be one of the more important musical characteristics to do so (Gabrielsson & Lindström, 2010), with fast music portraying happiness and slow music portraying sadness.
Finally, the role of other musical characteristics in expressing emotions—melody, timbre, dynamics, harmony, etc.—has also been explored by researchers. And though research indicates each contributes in some way towards making sad music sad and happy music happy, in practice emotional expression is really more about the interactions between how different musical characteristics are structured (Gabrielsson & Lindström, 2010). An example of this has been shared already—fast music in a major mode is often considered happy, while fast music in a minor mode is often considered angry.
Further reading on Dr. Moore's "What Makes Sad Music...Sad?" post can be found here.
Music will always have profound effects on us, whether for the happy or the sad. I cannot hear certain songs without getting choked up because of the painful memory attached to them, or the bliss I feel when I hear my wedding song come on. Knowing the reasons behind those feels has brought a sense of enlightenment to me as I hope it's done for you. But music is better when it's shared. Have a favorite song? Sign up and leave your favorite song in the comments, I'd love to know what you love!
And if you want to learn more about how music affects us, check out the website of Dr. Kimberly Sena Moore at www.MusicTherapyMaven.com. There you will find additional information, resources, and strategies or check out any of the links throughout this post or the two citations below.
Juslin PN (2019), Musical Emotions Explained, Oxford University Press.
Gabrielsson, A. & Lindström, E. (2010). The role of structure in the musical expression of emotions. In P. N. Juslin & J. A. Sloboda (Eds.), Handbook of music and emotion: Theory, research, applications (pp. 367-400). Oxford: Oxford University Press.