One of my favorite times of day is the ride home from work. Not just because work is over, but because I get to do one of my favorite things, listen to music. Like many of us, I enjoy different types of music. What I choose is often linked to my mood or my activity at the time. My choices range from classic rock, 80’s punk, 90’s grunge, indie rock, blues, folk, and even country. Whether I am driving, spending time with family, working in the yard, writing, or working out, each activity can have its soundtrack.
For many of us, listening to music is so integral to our being that there are few rooms in our homes that do not have some device to play it. Music provides a pleasant background for relaxing, lifting spirits, helping manage the passage of time, and can even draw us together through collective memories. In many ways, the music we listen to is the personal soundtrack of our lives.
We can easily assume that there is a connection between our mood and the music we listen to. But can we?
After delving into this topic, I found that the research is broad, and the findings are interestingly varied. While research on the psychological and emotional influences of music goes back over 150 years, it was a 1993 article in Nature that spurred great interest (Rauscher, Shaw, & Ky, 1993). The study found that listening to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major resulted in measurable benefits in spatial processing – later dubbed the Mozart Effect. This particular finding spurred many other studies, and only some confirmed those cognitive benefits. In more recent years, we have learned that music can arouse virtually every part of the brain and can even stimulate the release of hormones such as dopamine (Salimpoor, Benovoy, Larcher, Dagher, & Zatorre, 2011). These authors found that the pleasure we experience while listening to music is directly related to the release of dopamine in the emotional centers of the brain.
There is also evidence that music can help you focus better. However, focus is only better if you’re listening to music that you like as opposed to music you don’t like. Sometimes lyrics can be distracting, so can music that is too loud or too fast. Music with lyrics activates language processing centers of the brain that can interfere with the task-at-hand, according to Alexander Pentelyat, of the Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine.
Researcher Nikki S. Rickard (2011), found that music not only enhances positive mood states or reduces negative mood states, but it also contributes to multifaceted emotional well-being. Optimism and engagement, social identification, and spirituality can all be positively affected and enhanced. Building on that knowledge, the potential therapeutic benefits of music are promising, particularly in preventing emotional disorders in adolescents.
However, when it came to one of my favorite activities, listening to music while driving, the news was not as good. Hughes and her colleagues (2013) found that listening to music and singing both led to increased workload and distraction with changes in hazard perception and overall driving performance.
Listening to music has many enjoyable, life-enhancing, and even therapeutic benefits. One of my takeaways is that listening to music is hardly a passive activity. Your brain is actively processing and responding to the music you are listening to. The mood-enhancing properties of music are well-known, but most researchers agree that the effect is most significant when you listen to what you love. Enjoy the soundtrack of your life!
Mitchell, Heidi (2017). “Does Listening to Music Improve Your Focus?” Wall Street Journal, July 26, 2017.
Rauscher, F. H., Shaw, G. L., & Ky, K. N. (1993). Music and Spatial Task Performance. Nature, 365, 611
Rickard, N. (2011), Music listening and emotional well-being in Lifelong Engagement with Music: Benefits for Mental Health and Well Being. Rickard and McFerran (eds.) Nova Science, 2011.
Salimpoor, V., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K. et al. (2011) Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nat Neurosci 14, 257–262.