“When words fail, music speaks.” And it speaks to the heart, dear Hans Christian Andersen. Which is the same as saying, to the brain. Without saying a word, the right notes allow us to feel everything – good and bad. Who has never let themselves get emotionally carried away by the power of a good song? It’s a rhetorical question, of course.
I got in the car with my boyfriend. It was 2017. The funeral of my grandmother had just happened, family members had cleared the site and the pain in my heart appeared to have entered auto-pilot. “Are you ok?”, he asked me. I said yes, in all honesty. I was, given the circumstances. He turned on the radio and the chords of that sad song, which wasn’t even on for enough time to allow for me to identify it, barged the tablier. “Not that one”, my voice trembled while I held back the tears. The contrary is more usual: the stress of an overwhelming day is almost always involuntary thus I enjoy listening to a feel-good song, that will vary from person to person, but whose effects are universal: it levels out our energy so that the spirit can go from the negative to the positive. During college, for example, I always played Smells Like Teen Spirit, by Nirvana, in between studying sessions just so I could reset my head and purge out the tiredness. Or, in a more mundane example, my morning run is never completed without specifically picked music, since if not, odds are I’ll do a 180 and go from working out to staying in. Talking about the power of music over emotions won’t generate much of a debate: the chords of a melody or specific beat might, at least, unleash memories, some sort of internal movement of the body that destabilizes the resting mode of our system. It’s commonly accepted that music holds power over human beings, and we don’t need lots of studies to prove it, since our empiric knowledge will attest to it. After all, we all have our own stories like that one. And yet, the theme is so vast that it deserves some specialized depth: it’s not random that the effects of music on the brain – neuromusicology, that’s how the field of studies of the connection between both is called – and that courses are taught on the subject. For example, two professors from the University of Central Florida (the neuroscientist Kiminobu Sugaya and the renowned violinist Ayajo Yonetani) teach a very popular class titled Music and the Brain, which explores the impact of music on brain function and human behavior, admitting that, in an ideal format, meaning, in the right tune, it reduces stress, pain and symptoms of depression, at the same time that it improves motor and cognitive capacities, learning within space and time, as well as neurogenesis, which is the process of creation of brain cells. Besides that, we say we’re specialists in a life filled with an eclectic soundtrack, which makes us laugh, cry, have fun and relax, wake up and even go to sleep. It’s normal: if any work of art is capable of moving us, music, which is also a form of art, will have – it does – the same effect. Perhaps even more so.
“As a form of art, we find it in the primordial times of our existence, through the rhythm of our heartbeat, the sounds of the intrauterine canal, and in the musicality of a mother’s voice”, the clinical psychologist Joana Janeiro begins to explain about the capacity of the melodic sound influencing our emotional system. “Music is defined by rhythm, by melody, harmony, timbre, dynamics and form, suggesting, metaphorically, how music speaks to the body, the language of physiology – there is, thus, a sense of musicality in emotions. We might think of music as more present in this visceral dimension, carrying effects of emotional and relational regulation, capable of producing feelings of safety, proximity and physical and mental well-being. […] Winnicott, an author who has written on child psychoanalysis, discusses the importance of transactional objects on psychological and emotional development and refers to music as something that helps with the feeling of safety and in the processes of autonomy and separation of caregivers, similarly to the job of a teddy bear for a baby/ child. Music can be, for the baby, a way of upkeeping the feeling of safety when they are separated from their mother – tunes, music fragments, rhythms, television noises, radio, they all can accompany a child in search for autonomy and independence, repeating them as they play alone, or feel lonely. As they grow up, certain aspects of music continue to be, oftentimes, mental connections or memories of early-life experiences that have been associated with a feeling or status of safety, proximity, pleasure or intimacy. We can observe his introspectively when well-known songs and musical plays evoke intense memories and emotions connected to contexts of one’s childhood”, the specialist explains. “Therefore, music is present in the constitution of the very foundation of our mind. And it is art, through the projected communication it establishes, and because it promotes the capacity of sublimation, helping continuously with the regulation of safety states and of physical and mental vitality, as well as the creation of emotional statuses either complex or unknown, that gain purpose and representation in music.” Tiago Reis Marques, psychiatrist and researcher (and a brain connoisseur, let it be added) corroborates this idea of music as an emotional influence, but points out that it is not the only art form to do so: “If a person is being constantly musically stimulated, that will turn this person into someone more melodic, more musical, and therefore they will find some influence in music. But the same goes for any other stimuli, such as food, art or whatever it is. Music holds no special properties in our brain that any other thing or environment might not also have. But the beautiful side of it is that it is one of those things that appears to be transversal. Music and the creation of sounds and musical evolution have always been used by societies, from the most primitive to the current ones we have, as a form of aggregation, of creation of an affective relationship between those who share it and, thus, has a special anthropological meaning within the history of our evolution. Our brain has, obviously, adapted throughout thousands of years, and retained that as something important in its evolution. And we all used music very regularly in our lives.” In other words, music, as an art form, influences our brain as any other art form would, but because it is more present than those other forms, or due to how it became popular within society as something ordinary, it can manifest in our emotions in a more perceptible way than other artistical forms. “Exactly. In the same way some people get emotional when looking at an art piece. There is a psychiatric syndrome, Florence or Stendhal Syndrome, which is a psychosomatic condition that can provoke accelerated heartbeat, loss of conscience, confusion and even hallucinations when the individual is confronted with the artistic immensity of a piece or gallery, for example, and they faint when in the face of so much beauty. In the same way some people would faint when listening to the Beatles. Therefore, the sensorial overload of music and emotion is strong enough to lead people into presenting clinical conditions”, Tiago states.
It's valid: other forms of art also are capable of moving us, but it’s less common for other creative manifestations to touch us the same way listening to this or that sound does. Either because we were exposed to it in a continuous way, or because it is also a communication route (are we, perhaps, authorized to use Morse code or Zeca Afonso and his Grândula, Vila Morena, as examples?), or simply because the musical rhythm is a good analogy for emotions themselves. “Alongside other artistic expressions, we can think of music as a privileged access route to our emotions, being that it is considered the language of emotions by many authors”, Joana Janeiro explains, regarding this parallelism between music and the (metaphorical) heart. “It’s due to the fact that music makes us feel things and we identify, in some way, apparently both unconsciously and intuitively, emotions found in music. Richard Taruskin gives us the analogy of music as a crescent and waning – the beginnings, peaks and settlements – such as the intensity and sequential movements that characterize all sorts of feelings. But thinking of emotions is a hard, challenging task, thus its central positioning in psychotherapeutically focused work. They don’t always appear clearly, with a form and definition. Oftentimes they’re scattered around, disperse, disconnected and lacking in meaning and representation. Music, being an organizing agent, gives meaning and order to chaos, through the composing and articulation of rhythms, sounds and melodies. Music can, in that sense, help to identify and elaborate emotional statuses, whether on an individual level, or a collective and social one. If we think of its origin, we recall the central part it played in the social organization of feelings and emotions, being that music could be found in many important events filled with affection: weddings, funerals, protests, religious and healing rituals. Music is not just a way of bringing people together, but also a way of conferring symbolic value and an affectionate motor to that togetherness”, the psychologist enlightens. Music influences us, then, because it also has a side to it that allows for one to identify with it, to understand a bit of one’s reflection in their notes, construction, etc., a form of identification we have absorbed throughout time, as a result of our own social setting. In fact, “the way we perceive sounds and music and the influence they hold over our emotions is part of our human construction and very own context”, Tiago Reis Marques underlines, added that, although generally, we are aware of what types of sounds make us sad or happy, there is no universal formula. “Meaning that it would be the same thing as trying to look for a type of cuisine that everyone will find tasty. If one person belongs to a certain culture, where their tastebuds evolved differently, they will have a completely different notion of what appears appealing to them. It has a lot to do with culture, with the way someone is raised, with the way someone evolves and of the inter-individuality that exists amongst all human beings. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that there is universality in music, there is a set of sounds that, depending on how they’re composed, become more easily listened to and tolerated, but there are people who were raised in a certain context and grew up listening to music that most people don’t like or enjoy but they like it, and it makes them feel good. I believe in a set of sounds and rhythms that unleash positive emotions, the same way the sun or a beautiful river make us feel good and a polluted river, smoke in the sky and darkness make us feel bad. We’re all set to understand things a certain way.” It’s not universal, but there is a certain consensus here, sponsored by our own cultures and experiences, only because that’s also what we’ve been told since we were little. It has a bit to do with our social context, with all its nuances, since the power of music over emotions is not always used in a good way. Listening to music doesn’t always uplift our spirit. This doesn’t take away, though, from its importance: music has been a fundamental attribute to the human species. In practically every culture, from the most primitive to the most developed, there is music – whether for celebrations, as a form of calling, whatever… One truth that is verified throughout history, but also throughout one’s life: more or less talented, we all can sing (or scratch our vocal cords), we all can dance and twirl a little, even if not on the right tempo. The brain and the nervous system are programmed to set apart music from noise and for us not to remain indifferent to melodies and beats, being that various studies point out music, within certain limitations, as a field that allows for the improvement of performance and human health.
The presence of a specialist in grey matter is not, however, random: to talk of the influence of music on emotions is to imagine its influence on one’s heart, but not only that. It is, in fact, to approach the question of music’s influence on the brain, that master that controls our nervous systems, of pleasure, reward, fear and, consequently, carries this message to the rest of our body, which manifests it more intensely in the heart. “Sound is something that, beyond the hearing process carried out by the area of the brain that processes sound, which is the auditory cortex, is bound to a group of regions in the brain responsible for all kinds of emotions”, Reis Marques shares. “And so, not only can music put us on a positive scenario as it can stimulate negative emotions as well, and this evolves from the need to associate certain sounds to certain contexts, which means, in a very evolutive way, we know that there are sounds that immediately leave us on a state of alert: if we hear a police siren, that can stimulate fear. And, of course, there are others that can also positively stimulate us. The primary process of sound, meaning, the conversion of the sound stimuli to a message that is processed by the brain, it’s then connected to a group of brain circuits that are responsible for all of this, including emotions. Areas like the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, emotions, or like the striatum, which is responsible for pleasure, all those somewhat connect to sound and music.” The presence throughout one’s life undoubtedly works as a trigger to unleash different sensations from person to person, depending on the musical background, but the mind’s response and its interference on our mood go beyond psychology into the realm of biology – or, better yet, neurology. Several studies indicate that music stimulates the emotions through the course of specific pathways in the brain, affecting our state of mind, because the experience it kickstarts is, indeed, both physical and biological, which then translates also into an emotional route: the idea that “singing chases away the blues” is not that crazy, since when on sings, the body releases oxytocin, the hormone of love, as it is often described, which contributes to a better mood, communication and social interaction, and works towards decreasing anxiety. Research tells us that listening to music to create a spike of emotion increments the quantity of dopamine, a specific neurotransmitter that is produced in the brain and helps to control the centers of pleasure and reward in human beings. “The brain is an electrochemical organ that works through electric impulses and production of chemical substances, which are the neurotransmitters”, the psychiatrist explains. “At all times, music provokes a release of electrical impulses that, on their turn, release neurotransmitters.” And everybody knows that those sneaky messengers are the ones that carry, stimulate and balance the signals between brain cells, or nerve cells, and every other cell in our body, being able to affect a full roll of physical and psychological functions, among which humor, fear, etc., aka, emotions. In fact, the enjoyment of music seems to involve the very same brain area that deals with other forms of pleasure, such as food, sex and drugs. An aesthetical stimulation, like music, can reach naturally the systems of dopamine on the brain that are typically involved in highly rewarded behaviors and addiction.
The more or less consensual factor amongst songs that, in principle, make us feel happy and others that make us feel sad, because different types of melody affect us either beneficially or not, is a symptomatic consequence of the social and human environment we find ourselves in: “Depending on the song and on the context, it can trigger negative emotions. I wouldn’t say music follows just one direction and only makes us feel good. Now, obviously, our body is used to feeling relaxed with things that have more rhythm, that transmit peace, tranquility, and music also plays that role”, Reis Marques argues. The effect is not universal, but let’s admit that within this context, Happy by Pharrell Williams is a tune that energizes us and that Hallellujah by Ryan Adams will be a grimmer option, arguing thus, that the notes and chords and songs will be as diverse as their effects on human beings: “Studies have tried to measure, via self-reports, behavioral evaluations, physiological reactions, the emotional responses to musical stimuli”, Joana Janeiro introduces. “It’s possible to identify some major emotions, such as joy, sadness and pleasure, in different types of music and musical chords. The major and minor chords allow for more immediate and direct sensations. Major chords implicate emotions such as joy, peace, stability, and minor ones to sadness and statuses of concern. This also happens at each interval between notes, which can lead to diverse emotional statuses. Cinematographic composition is an expression of this, through the presence of very characteristic intervals, that force a certain emotional state that the movie plot aims to portray: suspense, sadness, deadlock, terror, intimacy, peace, triumph, joy, closure, etc. It would be an interesting exercise to try to watch a movie without a soundtrack, so we get the clear notion that we probably won’t have the same access to the raw emotions the director aims to transmit.” Taking a look at the thought of associating certain sonorities and rhythms to signs of danger or happy announcements, as Tiago Reis Marques pointed out, is yet another indication of the influence of one’s background on the role of music in one’s emotions. This perception means that certain chords and instruments and beats take us back to moments of anxiety, while others to delicate situations – in instrumental pieces such as Peter and The Wolf, it is not by chance that a trio of trumpets plays the wolf and a flute, the bird. “Rhythm helps identify, in a clearer way, a certain emotional state”, the psychologist underlines. “The melody and harmony help compose and transmit, in a more elaborate way, the nuances of that same emotional state.” Janeiro goes deeper into the thought, pointing out that association the psychiatrist doctor had also mentioned about our own conditionings and our frame, built upon references absorbed as we grow up: “Once music is present throughout someone’s life, it interferes and becomes an integrant part of that person’s memory. Sensory memory, which is constituted at an earlier stage in life, becomes part of us without granting us conscious access to specific episodes with form and definition. It contains sensorial elements, such as smell, sounds, touch, as well as the musicality of emotions, physiology, rhythms and relational tempos. Those same rhythms and sonorities of intrauterine life, the rhythm and motion of a mother’s embrace, accompanied by vocalizations and sounds of tranquility – which allow for one to fall asleep in a feeling of safety, and prepare the separation of the vigil that babies need to guarantee from their caregivers – might be thought of as a sketch of a musical memory composition that accompanies us, regulates and transforms us in life. The memories we have access to – episodic memories – refer to affectionate memories that we lived through, influenced by emotional factors that frame musical memory. Music connects us, in a nearly immediate way, not only to the emotional statuses of that particular moment, but to episodes, places, people, times, because these memories are and were marked by certain emotional states. Music is then, part of memory, because it is also owned by emotions. This relationship between music, memory and being, offers both an order and a regulation so that one can become music, as we often hear phrases like ‘this song is so me’, ‘I feel just like this song’, ‘I think of you when I listen to this’, ‘this song reminds me of that summer’. It is through the depth and complexity of the presence of music on the constitution of our memory and identification/ elaboration of our emotions that it presents itself as a therapeutical tool, very useful in psychotherapy within individual and group dynamics.”
A pertinent line to set the tone for musical therapy: not all symphonies will do it, as it has been stated over the disparity of the effects of music depending on the sonority it produces on a person, but some studies show successful results in using music as part of therapy, in particular when it comes to patients with Alzheimer’s, for example, and other conditions associated with the mind. A 2009 study carried out by the University of California discovered that there is an area of the brain that connects music to memories when one can access pertinent episodic memories unleashed by songs that are familiar to us, allowing us to reach recollections that could have seemed erased. This happens because “hearing is one of the first senses to connect us with life”, Joana states. “It is also a fundamental sense for the constitution of sensorial memory. In music, if we regard it as a form of artistic expression, we can sort of pay conscious attention to what is perceived through our hearing. We can hear passively, without conscious attention to the formal aspects of its composition, contrary to the attentiveness with which we look at a painting or sculpture. Hearing is a sense with great responsibility when it comes to psychological health, in the relation with others and with the world and in the establishment of memory. Hence why it is common to find expressions and forms of apathy within deafness. For that reason, we understand the permeability with the world, that offers us the capacity to hear, being that music and its components are present in our memories. Several studies agree regarding the positive effects of tools such as musical therapy in the context of Alzheimer’s disease. Frequently it reduces the levels of anxiety, agitation, aggressiveness, depressive symptoms and, above all, it plays an important role in the improvement of autobiographical memory.” Therefore, musical composing, considering all the nuances aforementioned, can produce a therapeutical effect – “music has enough charm to calm down a wild beast”, the British dramaturg William Congreve states, in 1697. “Some authors, such as Gilbert Rose, connect current neurosciences to affective syntony, once they realized the influence of music and its role in the clinical cases of stress and trauma, for example. Through the connection to memory, music provokes pre-verbal internalizations that embody and code memories, being an important contributor to affective regulation and elaboration. Moreover, music acts as an organizing and social agent, promoting creativity and the relation with the internal and external world. It is frequently used in individual psychotherapeutic contexts, in school communities, in conditions within the autism spectrum, risk groups and of hearing behaviors, close to the senior population, with the goal of prevention and cognitive, social and emotional stimulation, in dementia and organic cases, amongst others”, Janeiro confirms, being that she adverts to how “the rate of success varies, but the response is generally benefic, with a significant contribution in prevention, promotion and development of the mental and physical health.”
If the question that guided this text was “does music have power over emotions”, the answer is yes, as a stimulation that becomes even more powerful due to how it is a very present constant in human and social life, but not only, and, because of that, it is particularly strong as a communication tool and trigger of emotions. If the question then evolved to “what is the power of music over emotions”, the answer is more complex – the best would be to go back to the “I got in the car with my boyfriend” sentence. If now we perceive music not only as powerful within the emotional center, but also as a form of therapy, it is not important to generalize it and take it as a cure. It is not a magic potion, especially since, if you read this article as I’ve written it, it can be a two-edged sword. Even so, we didn’t refute Confucius when he said in his Book of Rites that “Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.” Joana Janeiro is more careful but equally as positive: “Music can be used as a therapeutical tool that potentializes communication, being in touch with emotions, perception and induction. It can help to elaborate even diffuse emotional states, until then inaccessible through thoughts or words. Patients in situations of impasse/ emotional blockage, who find it very difficult to cry, for example, think of music as an essential condition to create contexts and conditions that allow for emotional catharsis. Since we’re in an emotional field that is central and key in psychotherapeutic processes, and an unavoidable route through progress in psychological and affectionate development, it is necessary to create bridges, highways and sometimes cross-country tracks that might promote better access to emotions. Besides the safety and restraint of a therapeutical relationship, music, in parallel, potentializes the access to emotions, whether as a therapy tool – musical therapy – or through implicit and intentional ways that people, intuitively, resort to.” All this to say that Bowie – or Queen or Mozart or Lil Nas X or whoever or ideal musical medication entails – might not replace anxiolytics, but can, in the right dosage and tuning, help diminish our dependency on them. One right song a day keeps the doctor away. Have you consumed music today?
Translated from the original, as part of Vogue Portugal's Music Issue, published in june 2021.