The Psychology of Music

Images of musical instruments
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The Psychology of Music

Did you know that some psychologists apply the scientific method to music? They have found out many surprising things by doing so.

According to Richard Parncutt, Professor of Systematic Musicology at the University of Graz, music psychology investigates why humans spend so much time, effort and money on musical activities. Areas of psychology frequently drawn upon within the psychology of music include biopsychology, perception, cognition, creativity, motivation and emotion.

Areas of scientific interest explored by music psychologists include:

  • music rituals and gatherings
  • the skills and processes involved in learning a musical instrument
  • the role of music in forming personal and group identities
  • everyday music listening
  • responding emotionally to music

It is research into the last two topics (everyday music listening and responding emotionally to music) which have highlighted some incredibly interesting things that we can all relate to.

The Role of Dopamine

I’m sure you will have experienced that amazing buzz when listening to a particular song or piece of music. A tune so good or emotionally arousing that it gives you goosebumps and makes your hair stand on end. Well, it turns out that these musical frissons, like other forms of happiness-inducing experiences (sex, drugs, and food) are as a result of a dopamine rush.

Dopamine is a chemical neurotransmitter that helps regulate the reward and pleasure centers in the brain. A reinforcement and motivation stimulus, dopamine plays a very important role in our biological survival. Strikingly, therefore, given that music listening is not essential for human survival, dopamine release in this context serves to demonstrate the remarkable human ability to derive pleasure from abstract concepts such as music and art.

Which song or piece of music gives you goosebumps? Here are some of the replies I received from my students:

  • Clare Island – The Saw Doctors.
  • Vivaldi – L’ Olimpiade (Sinfonia Allegro) in facsimile.
  • You and your friend – Dire Straits.
  • Eulogy – Tool
  • Pavarotti – Nessun Dorma.
  • Simon And Garfunkel – The Sound of Silence.
  • Never let me go – Florence and The Machine.

Earworm: A Cognitive Itch

You’re suffering from a condition known as an “earworm” when your brain becomes stuck on a catchy tune. Another very common musical experience is when a tune suddenly pops into your head and keeps on doing so over and over again. This phenomenon has been variously labeled – tune in the brain syndrome, sticky music, cognitive itch, involuntary musical imagery and my personal favorite “earworms.”

To find out just how common earworms are, Dr. Lassi A. Liikkanen from Aalto University in Finland conducted the first comprehensive study on the subject. Over 12,000 people completed an online survey, with 91% of respondents reporting experiencing earworms at least once a week.

In a quest to learn more about the music in people’s heads, Dr Victoria Williamson and colleagues from Goldsmiths, University of London, conducted collaborative research with BBC 6Music and the British Academy. One illuminating area of inquiry has been to explore the circumstances preceding an earworm episode. Among the triggers which can apparently cause a tune to pop into your head and become an earworm are:

  • Recent Exposure: A tune you recently heard becomes an earworm.
  • Repeated Exposure: A tune you heard on multiple occasions becomes an earworm.
  • Person Association: The earworm tune is linked to a person you have seen, talked or thought about.
  • Situation Association: The earworm tune is triggered by the situation or environment you find yourself in e.g., a wedding reminds you of your favorite love song.
  • Word Association: The earworm tune title or lyrics are linked to a word or words that you have seen or heard.
  • Mood State: The earworm tune is linked to your mood.
  • Stress State: The earworm tune is linked to your experience of an anxious or traumatic event.
  • Dream Recall: The earworm tune is connected to events you dreamed about.

Among the other interesting patterns found among those reporting earworms were that women get earworms more than men and that the average length of an earworm is 27 minutes but for some people they can last for hours, days and even weeks!

Why Studying Earworms is Important

By learning about earworms we can understand more about how our involuntary memory systems work in both positive (creativity) and negative (rumination and PTSD) ways, and how we can learn to use memory more effectively, for example using music to help children learn more effortlessly or aid those who are suffering from memory problems. (Dr Victoria Williamson)

Make sure you check out Dr Victoria Williamson’s Music Psychology Blog, an outstanding resource for anybody interested in learning more about music psychology.

I can’t think of a better way of demonstrating the power of music than by drawing your attention to – Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory by Michael Rossato-Bennett. This profoundly moving documentary chronicles social worker Dan Cohen’s discovery that personalized music can awaken memories in people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

The use of therapeutic music in a formalized setting would be a great topic for a research project or final year thesis/dissertation. Not least because Nina S. Parikh, PhD, from the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging of Hunter College, CUNY has put together an extensive reference list of the latest research on the subject.