This is embarrassing to admit, but there was a phase during my sophomore year of high school when my favorite thing to do was lock myself in my room and, as the day wound down into darkness, sit on the floor near my stereo speaker listening to Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” over and over and over again. The song is absolute 80s schmaltz. To me, though, having been dumped by a boy who found a girl with a driver’s license, it salved my broken heart.
What made this song the antidote to my pain wasn’t that the words (other than the chorus) particularly applied to my situation; what got me every time was the deeply felt emotion the music seemed to carry as the notes and singers’ voices rose, fell, surged, and plummeted again. In my lonely teenage heartbreak I was unhappy, but I wasn’t alone in that unhappiness. Air Supply felt the sadness, too. By the 50 th replay, I’d feel better and ready to accept reality.
How can one song create such an uplifting experience in a listener? The answer lies in your perceptions, plus how those perceptions are driven by your brain’s expectations.
How Your Body and Brain Respond to Music
Music has been a part of human culture since prehistoric times, when hollow pieces of wood were blown to make sound. While we can’t say exactly how music came into being, the science behind how our bodies respond to music suggests it might have been a natural outcome of two instinctive interactions.
First, when you listen to a rhythm, your heart actually begins to get in sync with it. A slowed heartbeat sends a message to your brain that something sad, depressing, or heavy is occurring. A fast heartbeat communicates excitement.
Second, tone ranks equally in importance in terms of how your body responds to music. Your brain understands cheerfulness from pieces played in a major key and sadness from the way minor key pieces mirror soft sighs.
While signals of rhythm and tone combine to direct your psyche in how to understand a piece of music, the effects go both ways. Researchers at the University of Missouri discovered that you can deliberately boost your mood by listening to upbeat music. Published in The Journal of Positive Psychology , that information probably comes as no surprise, but to lead author Yuna Ferguson, the significance lies in the fact that the work “provides support for what many people already do—listen to music to improve their moods.”
This process becomes very interesting when the research shows that music can not only improve your mood but change your entire perception of yourself, a moment, or the world. It has been shown that music can change your perception so much that you can see things that aren’t even there. Jacob Jolij and Maaike Meurs of the psychology department of the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, asked participants to identify happy or sad smiley faces while listening to happy or sad music. The results: Smileys that reflected the mood of the music were matched with higher accuracy. However, even when no smiley was shown, participants reported happy or sad smileys in accordance with the type of music being played.
Jolij explains this by saying, “Seeing things that are not there is the result of top-down processes in the brain. Conscious perception is largely based on these top-down processes: your brain continuously compares the information that comes in through your eyes with what it expects on the basis of what you know about the world. The final result of this comparison process is what we eventually experience as reality. Our research results suggest that the brain builds up expectations not just on the basis of experience but on your mood as well.”
The Role of Expectation in Music and Mood Enhancement
Investigating the effects on mood in relation to what researchers call Self-Identified Sad Music, psychologists at the universities of Kent and Limerick in the United Kingdom focused on why people choose the music they do when they’re sad and how it affects them. The study, recently published in The Psychology of Music, asked 220 people to think back to an emotional event and recall the music they listened to afterward that they felt reflected their unhappy experience. They discovered varying motives for choosing “sad” music.
As predicted by results of the team’s earlier experiments, people did choose to listen to sad music for the purpose of reflecting their sadness. However, others chose music they identified as “beautiful.” For these respondents, the expectation of beauty in the music actually produced mood enhancement.
Dr. Annemieke van den Tol, lecturer in social psychology at Kent’s School of Psychology explains, “We found in our research that people’s music choice is linked to the individual’s own expectations for listening to music and its effects on them.…The only selection strategy that was found to directly predict mood enhancement was where the music was perceived by the listener to have high aesthetic value.” In other words, when you expect to hear something beautiful it can make you feel better, while expecting to hear something sad can serve to reinforce the sadness you’re already experiencing.
From today’s perspective, I admit, Air Supply doesn’t have quite the aesthetic value to thoroughly enhance a mood. At the time, I probably would have been better off if I could have somehow known about future research that would be published in the International Journal of Yoga citing a study that found that chanting “om” was almost equally effective at improving mood as implanting a vagus nerve stimulator (VNS). Often used as a technique to treat epilepsy and depression, a VNS is similar to a pacemaker. It generates pulses of electricity to stimulate the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that supplies organs in your chest and abdomen. Both the VNS and chanting “om” deactivate the limbic system, which controls your mood and emotions.
It turns out we can make our own mood-enhancing music. With my lovelorn vocal cords, a little well-placed chanting, plus an expectation of the beautiful sounds I could create I might have made music that lifted me to an even better feeling than Air Supply’s over-the-top crooning.
These days my favorite music for uplifting my mood is anything Latin, from Marc Anthony and Gilberto Santa Rosa’s soul-filled salsa to the fun and playful bachata sounds of Aventura and Prince Royce.