December 16, 2017

In this installment of Music and the Brain, we are going to explore a bit about why certain musical sounds elicit a physical response. Whether it be chills, a racing heart, relaxation or tears, most of us have experienced some sort of physical reaction to music at some point in our lives. According to the research I encountered, there are a variety of very interesting reasons why this may happen.


Music calms, soothes, and heals

Perhaps you are thinking “obviously music affects us if we like it – that’s why we like it!” So, following that logic, the type of music you like is going to impact your response to it. In order to bypass this potential bias in studying effects of music, we can look to studies of infants who are exposed to music (since they haven’t formed preferences yet). In a study done by faculty members from Tel Aviv University, live music played for 30 minutes in the neonatal intensive care unit to preterm infants was found to cause an improvement in physiological and behavioral short-term stress. Live music therapy (a singer with a drum) was associated with a significant decrease in heart rate and calmer deeper sleep, occurring only 30 minutes after therapy ended. While these results were seen with live music, an absence of music or recorded music had no effect on the tested parameters.

Along the same lines of the calming effects of music, a research study in Orlando, FL found that live harp playing decreased pain and anxiety for postoperative hospital patients. The researchers in this study found that the live harp playing affected the physiological measures of patient blood pressure and oxygen saturation. The patients themselves also reported positive effects on anxiety, pain, and satisfaction after a 20 minute session of harp music.

We typically choose music not only based on our preferences, but for a particular task we are working on. In the case of the infants and hospital patients in the previous studies, music was chosen for them in order to test the effects. But in a study done by psychologists at SUNY Buffalo, differences between self-selected and experimenter-selected music was tested. In this experiment, the psychologists observed how music selected by surgeons affected their performance and autonomic responses compared to the effects of music selected by the experimenters. Interestingly, the music that the surgeons chose for themselves reduced heart rate and improved performance during a psychological stressor (mental arithmetic) which can be generalized to the stress felt during surgery. In this study, preference and familiarity contributed to the surgeons’ favorable performance responses compared to their responses to the control music: Pachelbel’s Canon.

As you can see from the graphs below, skin conductance, heart rate and blood pressure were all lower when the surgeons were listening to their selected music while performing the task.


Music awakens, drives, and motivates

So what about the opposite of calming? What about when music makes us excited or elicits more passionate feelings?

Listening to our favorite music makes our body respond in emotional arousal. Music triggers the release of dopamine in the dorsal and ventral striatum (parts of the forebrain which are critical to voluntary movement and the reward system). A paper by a group of Montreal researchers discusses how our favorite moments in music are preceded by a prolonged increase of activity in the caudate – a structure found in the stratum. This “anticipatory phase” helps us predict the arrival of our favorite part in the song. This phase can trigger expectations of euphoric emotional states and create a sense of wanting and reward prediction. Composers and performers take advantage of this phenomenon and manipulate emotional arousal by breaking up expectations or the climax in a song.

Some basic music theory that everyone is probably aware of – even just intuitively – is that music follows a pattern of breaking up or breaking down a “tonic”. This is precisely what makes music interesting; the longer the expected pattern is denied the greater emotional release (chills) when it returns. We can’t predict all of the notes in a symphony, and that’s what keeps us listening – waiting for the reward of the pattern to be complete. Personally, the piece that achieves this effect phenomenally and gives me chills every time I hear it is “The Lark Ascending” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Music scares!

Finally, in the spirit of Halloween, let’s talk a little bit about “scary” music. For those of you who are fans of horror films, you may have noticed the scores in those movies are quite effective at building suspense and creating an eerie or creepy mood. How is this done effectively?

Well, apart from the obvious – the scary images on the screen building suspense or depicting something gory – certain sounds are scientifically found to create fear in humans. Researcher and animal call expert Daniel Blumstein found the inspiration for his paper on this topic while studying yellow-bellied marmots in Colorado. He noticed that baby marmots often screamed when researchers caught them – these sounds are called “nonlinear chaotic noise.”

Such nonlinear sounds — a dissonant chord, a child’s cry, etc. – trigger a biologically ingrained response by making us think our young are threatened. Blumstein teamed up with film score composer Peter Kaye and communications professor Greg Bryant to create music samples for the study. Kaye composed one set of emotionally neutral clips and another set that used nonlinear elements. The Jaws theme is a great example of this. For more great examples of nonlinear sounds in music, tune-in to The Score this Saturday and Sunday at 2pm on All Classical Portland!

Participants in the study were asked to rate the music segments based on how emotionally stimulating they were and what kind of emotion they evoked. Participants ranked the music with nonlinear elements more stimulating and linked it to negative emotions such as fear. Researchers also found that musical clips where the melodies suddenly became higher provoked greater emotional stimulation than moments when the notes suddenly went lower. This, Blumstein believes, may also be linked to the study of animal calls: a marmot’s scream goes higher when the marmot’s vocal cords go tenser, and this tensing would likely occur when the animal is scared.

So whether listening to music when you’re studying, driving, working out, or napping, it is impossible not to recognize that music affects us in some physical way. The next time you choose music for an activity or to achieve a particular result, think about what you are choosing and how it is affecting you!

What pieces give you the chills or make you swoon? Shoot us an email to let us know!

Photo: McLane Harrington

McLane Harrington

Office Manager