Music and Health

Music psych walkthrough: How music makes us feel


This post is rather different to the existing material in my blog. It’s longer, and it’s on a different subject area. Generally, I’ve blogged about the experience of doing a PhD (and some ways to make that experience more fun and productive). This is actually about my own area of research (or at least part of it).

I thought it’d be nice to do some summaries of music psychology papers, to make it easier to learn about the field without reading lengthy articles. Let’s call them music psychology walkthroughs. If you like them, a) go and read the full paper, if you have access, and b) leave a comment. If I see interest in the idea, I’ll write more of these.

Let’s go!

In Winter 2012, the BBC aired “How music makes us feel” as part of its Imagine series. Presented by Alan Yentob, the programme heard from a variety of people for whom music’s ability to elicit emotions holds a key role in their personal and professional lives.

The programme also included excerpts of a lecture by Professor Patrik Juslin, a leading researcher in the field of music and emotion from Uppsala University. Juslin explained that while one focal point in this field is predicting which musical features could be responsible for provoking different emotional reactions, his area of interest extends to hypothesising what psychological mechanisms are responsible for these emotional reactions.

Together with colleague Professor Daniel Västfjäll, Juslin authored a paper on this topic, published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and entitled “Emotional  responses to music: The need to consider underlying mechanisms” (2008). The article discusses six mechanisms, although not all of these were covered in the BBC programme. This post will give a brief overview of Juslin and Vastfjall’s descriptions of these mechanisms.

The mechanisms

1) Brain stem reflexes

“Emotion is induced by music because one or more fundamental acoustic characteristics of the music are taken by the brain stem to signal a potentially important and urgent event.” (p. 564)

The brain stem represents an ancient part of the brain, and as such it is responsible for scanning the environment for danger. Sudden or powerful noises can signal potential danger, and as such can trigger reflexes in the brain stem.  Music which is particularly loud or fast, or which has sudden changes, are hypothesised to activate the brain stem and thus produce heightened physiological arousal and feelings of unpleasantness. Similarly, music which is quiet and slow, without sudden changes, should promote a pleasant state of relaxation.

2) Evaluative conditioning

“Evaluative conditioning (EC) refers to a process whereby an emotion is induced by a piece of music simply because this stimulus has been paired repeatedly with other positive or negative stimuli.” (p. 564)

An example of evaluative conditioning would be listening to a specific song during a favourite activity every day. Hearing that song outwith this context might still evoke the positive emotions associated with that activity.

3) Emotional contagion

“Emotional contagion refers to a process whereby an emotion is induced by a piece of music because the listener perceives the emotional expression of the music, then ‘mimics’ this expression internally… [by] peripheral feedback from muscles, or a more direct activation of the relevant emotional representations in the brain.” (p. 565)

Similarities have been found between how emotion is conveyed in speech and music, meaning that a sad piece of music may be reminiscent of the speech of someone expressing sadness. However, music can go even further than speech in terms of speed, intensity and timbre and as such is sometimes referred to as a “super-expressive voice” (Patrik N Juslin, 2001).

4) Visual imagery

“Visual imagery refers to a process whereby an emotion is induced in a listener because he or she conjures up visual images (e.g. of a beautiful landscape) while listening to the music.” (p. 566)

This mechanism describes a process whereby the listener may experience mental images in response to the music. In turn, these mental images can trigger emotions. Different mental images can result in different emotions.

5) Episodic memory

“Episodic memory refers to a process whereby an emotion is induced in a listener because the music evokes a memory of a particular event in the listener’s life.” (p. 567)

Rather than the repeated, subconscious pairing of evaluative conditioning, episodic memory applies to one emotion-laden memory. When the memory is evoked (in this case, by music), the associated emotion is also evoked, along with the physiological reactions.  An example of this is used in the film Silver Linings Playbook (Russell, 2012). The film’s main character has recently experienced dramatic marital problems. Whenever he hears a  song which was played at his wedding, he undergoes high levels of distress.

6) Musical expectancy

“Musical expectancy…refers to a process whereby an emotion is induced in a listener because a specific feature of the music violates, delays, or confirms the listener’s expectations about the continuation of the music.” (p. 567)

Differing from the brain stem reflex mechanism, which relates to sudden, powerful noises, musical expectancy relies on syntax and structure, and relates to the listener’s previous experience of the musical style in question. Induced emotion is based on tension and resolution in the music, and whether the listener’s expectations are confirmed or violated. Without sufficient exposure to this style, musical expectancy will not be activated.  As such, it is highly cultural, and is based on learning.  Research shows that brain regions activated during violations in musical syntax are similar to those activated during language syntax violations.


Juslin and Västfjäll stress that these are only hypothesised mechanisms for how music evokes emotions, not recognised processes. Rather than being activated in isolation, these mechanisms are likely to work in tandem to give a fuller musically-emotive experience. With the growing amount of research on the possible health benefits that musical emotions can bring, this article provides a welcome insight into how these emotions are evoked.


Juslin, P. N. (2001). Communicating emotion in music performance: A review and a theoretical framework.

Juslin, P. N., & Vastfjall, D. (2008). Emotional responses to music: The need to consider underlying mechanisms (vol 31, pg 559, 2008). Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31(6), 751-751.

Russell, D. O. (Writer). (2012). Silver Linings Playbook.


The verdict: Music at the dentist (Mozart or metal?)

I’m sure you’ve all been on tenterhooks waiting for an update on this one. I am safely at home in bed, typing ability in tact, and in much less pain than I anticipated.

I should add, I didn’t listen to metal. I am a sucker for alliteration.

So what did you listen to?

The night before, when I was in my bed (again), looking nervous, I made a pretty long playlist. Revealing the full playlist, while in the spirit of transparency and knowledge exchange, may be embarrassing, so I’m only going to share the songs I actually listened to.

I started listening once they started the real thing, i.e. not for the local anaesthetic. I couldn’t see the MP3 player under the gown so was restricted to skipping songs until I got to one I could hear.

So I started with King George, Dover, then skipped for a while to Sk8r Boi, Avril Lavigne, and finished with You Drive me Crazy (album version), Britney Spears. Really, those were the only songs that were loud enough and had a catchy enough tune for me to recognise them instantly. The exception was Rollercoaster, Blink 182, which I did recognise but just didn’t find as engaging.

Did you feel less anxious?

I really, really did. It was a slightly different procedure (extraction rather than coronectomy), so there was less drilling. I had been terribly nervous (more so than before the last time). But last time I couldn’t control my surroundings at all, and this time I could, a little. I think that this is a huge part of how music can be useful.

I also found the music much more engaging – I knew it, I liked it, I could have sung along if not for the obvious problems there.

You’re saying that you didn’t feel relaxed by music that you’ve defined as relaxing. Doesn’t that totally invalidate your research?

Actually, I really don’t think it does, and it has helped me to think more clearly about what’s different about my PhD.

The point is, with situational anxiety, your main concern is dealing with the situation at hand, and music can really help that. If you need something to distract you from your pain or your nerves, music that you like and know well (and have good associations with) is fantastic.

When treating an anxiety disorder (which is what I’m researching), the main concern is not dealing with the situation at hand, it is dealing with the seemingly-uncontrollable level of anxiety. Relaxation (music or otherwise) is not implemented to make you forget you’re in the scary situation. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Relaxation is there to tell your body that it is okay to stay in the scary place.

If you have any music that helps you cope with anxiety, I’d love to know what you listen to, and why you find it helpful. Please comment below.

Music at the dentist: Mozart or metal?

Last time I went to the dentist, it was for wisdom tooth surgery. I was not expecting this to be fun. In fact, I was expecting a heavy amount of anxiety.

Now, for my PhD, I am researching how listening to music can help people cope with anxiety. Although my focus is on people with anxiety disorders, my literature review is much wider, and I’ve read a number of papers on listening to music as a tool for reducing stress at the dentist.

“Ah”, I thought, “the dentist”. “I’ll take some music”. I felt I was being very clever. I chose music that (according to extensive research on the subject) should have been particularly good at helping me relax – A Mozart piano concerto (No. 20 in D minor, Mvt 2, performed by Alfred Brendel, if you’re interested).

I went into my surgery armed with my MP3 player and my fiancee (for any moral support that Mozart couldn’t provide). What I should have mentioned was that I was having a coronectomy rather than an extraction. Without going into too much detail, this means that rather than having the tooth pulled, the top of is sawed off and the gum sewn back in place.

The dental surgeon started her work, and I pressed “play” to activate my Mozart and the relaxation that was bound to follow.  Initially, this was lovely. I breathed more deeply, and did feel more relaxed. Until the saw got going. Mozart was no match for that saw. My fiancee later told me that she and the nurse had been exchanging glances (the nature of which I am unsure of) as I frantically spun the volume dial in an attempt to drown out the horror of hearing my own tooth being sawed apart.

Would something louder have been more effective, despite being contrary to my painstaking research? How will we ever know?

Lucky for everyone (apart from me), I am having another wisdom tooth removed in 2 days. Much as I am dreading this, it will give me the chance to test my theory.  Will louder, busier music make me feel more relaxed than quiet, gentle Mozart?

Assuming the surgery doesn’t have any surprise complications which would remove my typing ability, I’ll keep you updated. If anyone else listens to music at the dentist, or has any recommendations, please do let me know in the comments section.