What’s Happening in Your Brain and Body as You Listen to Music

You wake up to a song as your alarm clock, stream music while you crunch numbers at work, blast power workout playlists at the gym, and attend music festivals on the weekend. But did you know that what you’re listening to can actually affect how you act, feel, and think?

“The effect of music on the brain or body depends in part on its genre,” Frank A. Russo, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Ryerson University, tells Yahoo Health. But it also depends on whether or not you like the song. “Someone who is a ‘metal head’ will be able to hear all sorts of emotions in music that others would generally hear as being aggressive,” he says.

Regardless of your taste in music, here are some things that happen in your brain and body every time you push play on Spotify.

Listening to “Happy” by Pharrell Williams can actually cheer you up. Research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology shows that listening to upbeat music improves mood, with one catch — it only works if you have the desire to be happy. Test subjects who listened to the upbeat music without feeling an urge to be happy did not see their moods change. “Listening to positive music may be an effective way to improve happiness, particularly when it is combined with an intention to become happier,” the study says. A separate study also showed that the “feel-good” neuorchemical called dopamine is released when we listen to music. 

In 1993, a study called “The Mozart Effect” showed that listening to Mozart could improve standardized test scores. But it’s not just classical music that has this effect: A study published in the journal Intelligence shows that people exposed to music performed better at spatial tasks than those not listening music, but this was not dependent on the musical genre. The Mozart Effect’s researcher, Francis Rauser, explained the implications to NPR: “The key to it is that you have to enjoy the music. If you hate Mozart you’re not going to find a Mozart Effect. If you love Pearl Jam, you’re going to find a Pearl Jam effect." 

Ever listen to a song and get vivid flashbacks? “Music can definitely support the recall and even formation of memories,” Russo says. “Enjoyable music may lead to dopamine release in the mesolimbic [reward] pathway, which may in turn support the formation of associations and, ultimately, memories.” A study published in the journal Neuropsychologia shows playing music helps improve working memory, as well. “Behaviorally, musicians outperformed non-musicians on standardized subtests of visual, phonological, and executive memory,” according to the study. 

When a song goes in a direction you just didn’t expect (with a key change or diversion in melody, for example), you may experience physical sensations on your skin. Wesleyan psychologist Psyche Loui calls them “skin orgasms,” Science of Us reports

Do you listen to music when you run? Then you know how effective it is at pushing you through that final mile. “Music has been shown to help us work harder and longer by increasing physical capacity and arousal, and improving performance,” Jeanette Bicknell, PhD, tells Yahoo Health. Bicknell points to a study in the International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology that found that carefully selected music, like a workout playlist, can have performance-enhancing benefits during high-intensity exercise. Experts believe that music with a 180 beats per minute tempo is best for running.

Depending on the music you listen to, your blood pressure can rise or fall when you jam out. Research presented at the British Cardiovascular Society showed that listening to music from Beethoven, Puccini, and Verdi was associated with a decrease in blood pressure and lower heart rate — regardless of whether the person actually preferred that kind of music. Meanwhile, rock and pop either didn’t have an effect on blood pressure, or it seemed to increase it. Similarly, a small study published in the journal Heart showed that listening to fast music was associated with increased blood pressure, while listening to slower music was associated with — you guessed it — decreased blood pressure.

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