8 Surprising Ways Music Affects and Benefits our Brains

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I’m a big fan of music, and use it a lot when working, but I had no idea about how it really affects our brains and bodies. Since music is such a big part of our lives, I thought it would be interesting and useful to have a look at some of the ways we react to it without even realizing.

“Without music, life would be a mistake” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Of course, music affects many different areas of the brain, as you can see in the image below, so we’re only scratching the surface with this post, but let’s jump in.

brain-and-music

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1. Happy/sad music affects how we see neutral faces:

We can usually pick if a piece of music is particularly happy or sad, but this isn’t just a subjective idea that comes from how it makes us feel. In fact, our brains actually respond differently to happy and sad music.

Even short pieces of happy or sad music can affect us. One study showed that after hearing a short piece of music, participants were more likely to interpret a neutral expression as happy or sad, to match the tone of the music they heard. This also happened with other facial expressions, but was most notable for those that were close to neutral.

Something else that’s really interesting about how our emotions are affected by music is that there are two kind of emotions related to music: perceived emotions and felt emotions.

This means that sometimes we can understand the emotions of a piece of music without actually feeling them, which explains why some of us find listening to sad music enjoyable, rather than depressing.

Unlike in real life situations, we don’t feel any real threat or danger when listening to music, so we can perceive the related emotions without truly feeling them—almost like vicarious emotions.

 

2. Ambient noise can improve creativity

We all like to pump up the tunes when we’re powering through our to-do lists, right? But when it comes to creative work, loud music may not be the best option.

It turns out that moderate noise level is the sweet spot for creativity. Even more than low noise levels, ambient noise apparently gets our creative juices flowing, and doesn’t put us off the way high levels of noise do.

The way this works is that moderate noise levels increase processing difficulty which promotes abstract processing, leading to higher creativity. In other words, when we struggle (just enough) to process things as we normally would, we resort to more creative approaches.

In high noise levels, however, our creative thinking is impaired because we’re overwhelmed and struggle to process information efficiently.

This is very similar to how temperature and lighting can affect our productivity, where paradoxically a slightly more crowded place can be beneficial.

 

3. Our music choices can predict our personality

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Take this one with a grain of salt, because it’s only been tested on young adults (that I know of), but it’s still really interesting.

In a study of couples who spent time getting to know each other, looking at each other’s top ten favorite songs actually provided fairly reliable predictions as to the listener’s personality traits.

The study used five personality traits for the test: openness to experience, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and emotional stability.

Interestingly, some traits were more accurately predicted based on the person’s listening habits than others. For instance, openness to experience, extraversion and emotional stability were the easiest to guess correctly. Conscientiousness, on the other hand, wasn’t obvious based on musical taste.

Here is also a break-down of how the different genres correspond to our personality, according to a study conducted at Heriot-Watt University:

music and personality

 

To break it down, here is the connection they have found:

  • Blues fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing, gentle and at ease
  • Jazz fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing and at ease
  • Classical music fans have high self-esteem, are creative, introvert and at ease
  • Rap fans have high self-esteem and are outgoing
  • Opera fans have high self-esteem, are creative and gentle
  • Country and western fans are hardworking and outgoing
  • Reggae fans have high self-esteem, are creative, not hardworking, outgoing, gentle and at ease
  • Dance fans are creative and outgoing but not gentle
  • Indie fans have low self-esteem, are creative, not hard working, and not gentle
  • Bollywood fans are creative and outgoing
  • Rock/heavy metal fans have low self-esteem, are creative, not hard-working, not outgoing, gentle, and at ease
  • Chart pop fans have high self-esteem, are hardworking, outgoing and gentle, but are not creative and not at ease
  • Soul fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing, gentle, and at ease

Of course, generalizing based on this study is very hard. However looking at the science of introverts and extroverts, there is some clear overlap.

4. Music can significantly distract us while driving (contrary to common belief)

Another study done on teenagers and young adults focused on how their driving is affected by music.

Drivers were tested while listening to their own choice of music, silence or “safe” music choices provided by the researchers. Of course, their own music was preferred, but it also proved to be more distracting: drivers made more mistakes and drove more aggressively when listening to their own choice of music.

Even more surprising: music provided by the researchers proved to be more beneficial than no music at all. It seems that unfamiliar, or uninteresting, music is best for safe driving.

 

5. Music training can significantly improve our motor and reasoning skills

We generally assume that learning a musical instrument can be beneficial for kids, but it’s actually useful in more ways than we might expect. One study showed that children who had three years or more musical instrument training performed better than those who didn’t learn an instrument in auditory discrimination abilities and fine motor skills.

nrn2152-f1

They also tested better on vocabulary and nonverbal reasoning skills, which involve understanding and analyzing visual information, such as identifying relationships, similarities and differences between shapes and patterns.

These two areas in particular are quite removed from musical training as we imagine it, so it’s fascinating to see how learning to play an instrument can help kids develop such a wide variety of important skills.

Similar research shows this correlation for exercise and motor skills in the same way, which is also fascinating.

 

6. Classical music can improve visual attention

It’s not just kids that can benefit from musical training or exposure. Stroke patients in one small study showed improved visual attention while listening to classical music.

The study also tried white noise and silence to compare the results, and found that, like the driving study mentioned earlier, silence resulted in the worst scores.

Because this study was so small, the conclusions need to be explored further for validation, but I find it really interesting how music and noise can affect our other senses and abilities—in this case, vision.

 

7. One-sided phone calls are more distracting than normal conversations

Another study focused on noise, rather than music, showed that when it comes to being distracted by the conversations of others, phone calls where we can only hear one side of the conversation are the worst offenders.

After a survey showed that up to 82% of people find overhearing cellphone conversations annoying, Veronica Galván, a cognitive psychologist at the University of San Diego, decided to study why these are such a pain.

In the study, participants completed word puzzles while one half of them overheard one side of a mundane phone conversation in the background. The other half of the volunteers heard the entire conversation as it took place between two people in the room.

Those who heard the one-sided phone conversation found it more distracting than those who heard both people speaking. They also remembered more of the conversation, showing that it had grabbed their attention more than those who heard both sides and didn’t remember as much of the discussion.

The unpredictability of a one-sided conversation seems to be the cause of it grabbing our attention more. Hearing both sides of a conversation, on the other hand, gives us more context which makes it easier to tune out the distraction.

Then again, as we’ve explored before, getting distracted is often not such a bad things for various reasons.

 

8. Music helps us exercise

Back to music again, and we can see that just like silence doesn’t help us to be more creative or better drivers, it’s not much use when we’re exercising, either.

Research on the effects of music during exercise has been done for years. In 1911, an American researcher, Leonard Ayres, found that cyclists pedaled faster while listening to music than they did in silence.

This happens because listening to music can drown out our brain’s cries of fatigue. As our body realizes we’re tired and wants to stop exercising, it sends signals to the brain to stop for a break. Listening to music competes for our brain’s attention, and can help us to override those signals of fatigue, though this is mostly beneficial for low- and moderate-intensity exercise. During high-intensity exercise, music isn’t as powerful at pulling our brain’s attention away from the pain of the workout.

Not only can we push through the pain to exercise longer and harder when we listen to music, but it can actually help us to use our energy more efficiently. A 2012 study showed that cyclists who listened to music required 7% less oxygen to do the same work as those who cycled in silence.

Some recent research has shown that there’s a ceiling effect on music at around 145 bpm, where anything higher doesn’t seem to add much motivation, so keep that in mind when choosing your workout playlist. Here is how this breaks down for different genres:

Screen Shot 2013-11-20 at 8.29.58 AM

 

Now if we team up these different “tempos” with the actual work-out we’re doing, we can be in much better sync and find the right beat for our exercise. If you match up the above with the graphic below it should be super easy to get into a good groove:

Screen Shot 2013-11-20 at 8.30.17 AM

So in the same way that exercising makes us happier, it’s not surprising that music adds significantly to our work-out success.

What have you noticed about how music affects you? Let us know in the comments.

Image credits: Suites Culturelles, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Ali eminov, PaceDJ

  • http://www.johnrmeese.com/p/about-me.html John Meese

    This is really interesting!

    Thinking about music genre & personalities, specifically, it’d be interesting to study how people’s interests change over time s their personality changes.

    • q

      “To break it down, here is the connection they have found:”

      That looks like bullshit, totally random. What if you like all styles?

      • http://www.johnrmeese.com/p/about-me.html John R. Meese

        She did say “Take this one with a grain of salt, because it’s only been tested on young adults (that I know of), but it’s still really interesting.”

  • http://blog.dayfire.com/ Eric White

    Very awesome topic, this. Music is a HUGE part of my life too… whether I’m chillin at home with some records on or at work trying to bust out a new blog post to the Black Keys or Herb Alpert.

    Interesting to see how music can effect us, particularly the idea of ambient music. I always end up blaring my tunes at work but apparently I shouldn’t. Nice!

  • Josh Matthews-Morgan

    Agree about ambient music being helpful for productivity/focus. When I’ve got loud music or music with lyrics playing while I work, I’m pretty much useless.

    Set my Pandora channel to Solo Piano radio, and I turn into a creativity/focus machine. ;)

  • Heather YamadaHosley

    Very interesting to see which traits a person has if they enjoy several genres of music.

  • http://www.seannisil.com/ Sean Nisil

    I think we need to give these guys a group hug! ;) “Rock/heavy metal fans have low self-esteem, are creative, not hard-working, not outgoing, gentle, and at ease”

    • carokopp

      LOL, Sean!

    • Janelle Rizal

      Aww man I love rock and I don’t halve low self-esteem but I definitely am creative!

      • http://www.seannisil.com/ Sean Nisil

        Haha! High self-esteem and creativity are ok around here. :)

    • sally

      I agree

    • rockmysocksoff

      The description of the rock/heavy metal fans is so incredibly false, it honestly makes me doubt the validity of the rest of the article! m/…(>.<)…m/

      • David Smith

        agreed, though this article has it’s good points large chunks of it appears to be BS

      • doolui

        definitely

      • Sydney

        Agreed!

      • yolo swaggings

        u loser

      • Emanuell

        m/ yeah baby rock on ! low self-esteem !! that’s the most weird description I’ve ever heard in my life .

  • http://bebrainfit.com/ Deane Alban

    I’d love to know the story behind the first picture of the brain with headphones. Is that a statue?

  • http://www.emmasiemasko.com/ Emma Siemasko

    I love this article so much! Inspiring me to add some gems to my work out playlist for this evening. Thanks, Belle.

    • carokopp

      Let us know what you find! :)

  • carokopp

    This is creepily accurate for me: “Chart pop fans have high self-esteem, are hardworking, outgoing and gentle, but are not creative and not at ease”!

  • http://music2work2.com music2work2

    It’s great to see this post and as Belle Beth says, it’s
    just barely scratching the surface, but having been curating this topic for a
    few years over at http://www.scoop.it/t/background-music
    the one thing that stands out in the field is quite how much contradictory
    information there is out there. There’s been
    an explosion in studies in the last decade but the vast majority of them operate with small sample sizes and
    it’s very tempting to make generalizations.
    For example, for every driving study that says music is bad for you
    there’s another one that says listening to music while driving has little
    impact at all – http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130606101550.htm.

    What’s in no doubt is the impact that music can have on us –
    it’s pretty amazing. I think in the future music is going to be
    perceived differently in society, as well as being entertainment it’ll become
    more utilitarian – it’ll be interesting to see what that looks and sounds like!

  • Tony

    Wow…I actually think this is crap (for the most part) sorry but I do.

  • splicernyc

    Addendum to the rock music fan description. Fans of Progressive Rock are arrogant, overconfident and have an overinflated ego. I should know…

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  • http://twitter.com/theirmind theirmind

    Sometimes quiet is kind of “Music”, just like when I’m writing.

  • BudgetDoc.com

    The section on personality influence was interesting, but I don’t think it accounts for the fact that many people have a broad range of musical interests.

    I’d also like to see some research be done on how different genres of music affect behavior on a moment-to-moment basis, much like the old “classical music helps you study” factoid.

  • pan

    Interesting article

  • Kay Bee

    rap are more outspoken,attention to detail and impromptu

  • Darlene Moak

    Anyone who ever doubted that music affected the whole brain must not have listened to any music at all. It’s good though that we’re learning more of the “nuts and bolts” of the experience because people will undoubtedly benefit from this knowledge. However, just from my own experience, walking outside is best done without music, at least out in the country where I live. I’ve done it both ways. When I walk without music, I hear birds and other sounds that I wouldn’t if I were listening to music. Maybe my heart rate doesn’t get up as high but it’s worth it. Otherwise, please fill my life with music. It’s a much better life than it would be without it.

    • Winters

      That, my good man, is the purest music of all – the music of life.

  • Kira M. Newman

    Hi Belle, super interesting and great resource! I found this while researching music and emotions. If you want to read more about music and productivity, check out Focus@Will: http://tech.co/listening-to-music-at-work-2013-11

  • sally

    I am a punk and heavy metal fan and the lyrics aren’t as satanic as people think they r rather sad or empowering ”sry.can’t spell” not satanic and they r from a jungles point of view that can really help with my depression. Ever since I started listening to this music I have felt better and the other fans of this music r kind and accept me as a Christian and r very interested in the religion and treat me like a person and give me advice on my depression I’m very happy to have them as a family

  • Mike Puorro

    Pseudo science at it’s worst. To think someone was paid to post this tripe disgusts me.

  • Mike Puorro

    One need only look at the socioeconomic class, and level of education of the listener, to assess the personality types of these demographics. These statistics fall short of common sense and rudimentary social observation skills.

  • Mike Puorro

    There’s a big difference between self confidence and the king of arrogance which accompanies ignorance.

  • Shubham Thakur

    Just awesome…loved it Belle :-)

  • Mlp Depy FAN

    Cool! YOU JUST HALPED ME GET A A+ ON MY HOMEWORK!!
    YOU ARE 2 COOL!! :D

  • Michaela

    I’m a fan of Rock and classical… hmmm

  • Cleveland brown

    That’s nasty

  • Cleveland brown

    My name is Cleveland brown and I am glad to be back in my hometown with my own family

  • potatowiz

    Heavy metal fans gentle and outgoing?? what?

    • potatowiz

      I mean at ease

  • Wendy

    Thanks this will really help me on my science fair project :)

  • http://www.tartara.com/ny Miguel Ferreira

    Have you ever imagined, why listening to music makes you feel good about everything around us. When we are happy, sad, ecstatic or dull, music can help us relax during that time. Read : http://www.wikihow.com/Music-Is-Beneficial-for-US

  • Roger Fatpig

    THIS WEBSITE IS JUST PLAIN RUBBISH! YOU ACTUALLY BELIEVE THIS?

  • James Manman

    THIS IS THE WORST WEBSITE EVER! YOU ACTUALLY BELIEVE THIS RUBBISH!

  • Michelle Vargas

    Look up: THE SELF METHOD on twitter/FB/Instagram…..it’s a whole fitness method designed doing this!!!!

  • Monique Nieves

    This Is A Good Way Of Learning How It Affects The Brain

  • Agnes Dadura

    I love this post! I didn’t know quite a few of these. It certainly helps exercise… I literally cannot run without music, the chance of me giving up after 1 km is very high then. I’m recently listening to Spotify playlists while working, they have pretty great mixes for any kind of mood.

  • Benedict Cumberbatch

    This is awesome!

  • Sara

    Great article, but those BPM values are bullshit. The “normal” tempo range, especially for pop music, is from around 80 to 120 BPM, a.k.a. the rate at which the human heart beats, which is why we perceive it as pleasant. A lot of electronic music genres go beyond that, but hip hop is definitely nowhere near 110-140, more like 80-115 (and hip hop tracks at 115bpm are rare).

    And what kind of graphic is that? Just “Jazz” with a few question marks? Why would you put it in there if you don’t even have anything to say about it? Who came up with this selection of genres? Is this the work of a bored clueless intern? It’s baffling.

    • Dan Shure

      Yup! I was about to point this out. The BPM’s are wayyy off.

  • Ipittydafoo

    DUBSTEP?

  • Kristy Pillay

    Hi, where exaclty did you source information for this article from?

  • http://www.JasonJosephStudio.com/ Jason Joseph

    Finding this article was utterly serendipitous! I’m giving a TEDx Talk Tuesday June 10th and its about my charity photography music portrait project! Its called Six Beats of Separation.. stay tuned ! ( Pun intended! )

  • Samuel Tello

    Rock/Heavy Metal the best type of music.I do have all the characteristics of rock/heavy metal music I also listen to Screamo though.

  • Neemias Leonardo

    Acredito que essa pesquisa, não pode ser generalizada, porque existe diferença de criação, cultura e outros fatores que podem não combinar com algum desses resultados. Penso que cabe a cada um interpretar de maneira concisa para si essas informações.

  • Mattea Meuser

    I have noticed that if I listen to Classical music and/or soundtracks like Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Chronicles of Narnia sometime before bed, that night I will have a dream.

    Of course there are times I will have a dream even if I don’t listen to classical or film scores. BUT, there has NOT been a night where I DID listen to classical or film scores and I DIDN’T have a dream. Does that make sense?

  • Glenda Cosenza

    Hm….I am a former opera singer and have been a working classically trained musician all my life — but I absolutely love jazz and blues too — and most of all, I love heavy metal/hard rock. Classic rock too. So I have high and low self-esteem, I’m introverted and extroverted, I work hard and I am lazy and I am gentle and not gentle. The only thing I most definitely am is laid back. LOL

  • Lori (Music Health Coach)

    This is one of the best comprehensive articles I’ve ever seen on the benefits of music and how it affects us. Wonderful, wonderful job!

    • what12132

      the part where they make links between the kind of music you like and your personality is totally BS, do you ever listen to any music at all sometimes?

  • Fed Up

    The term Country Western defines a generation of music that ended about 40 years ago. That term has not been used to describe the music in its current incarnation for decades. That is when the old guard was on its way out and new producers with more eclectic backgrounds began to put a different spin and energy to the music. The word “Western” was dropped and it became simply “Country”….Not that it really matters to your article …but it does indicate that the person using the term “Country Western” as a current form has branded themselves as somewhat uninformed and behind the times.

  • Daniel Doyle

    I like pretty much all music. Music though, not noise mimicking music. I guess I have low and high self esteem, creative…or not, etc Pretty much silly to to cast people like what was done in this ‘study’

  • Sevilla

    I love Smooth Jazz (especially Bosa Nova) and Classical. Its true what they say. I can be introverted and extroverted depending on my mood. If im tired or dont feel like talking I wont. But if im happy or someone talks to me Im outgoing.

  • Sydney

    I listen to heavy metal and I’m the most hard-working and outgoing person you’ll ever meet.

  • crazy awesome psycho

    I agree with this, I’m a pop music lover, I am hard working, self – esteemed, outgoing, and all the above TY :)

  • efiathegirlfromghana

    i agree with you @ sean nisil

  • woohoo

    WIDESPREAD MUTHA FUCKIN PANIC

  • http://www.mythicalrecords.com/ Dark Music Lover

    Great Article. I really enjoyed it. I don’t know why but “sad” music doesn’t make me sad, etc. I think music is a highly subjective thing. I listen to http://www.sadclassicalmusic.com/ all the time, but never feel depressed. haha.

  • bob

    I love the song “let her go” by passenger