The psychology of music: How we perceive music

The American poet Henry Longfellow called music the universal language of humanity. And so it is music appeals primarily to our feelings, therefore it is understandable to everyone, regardless of gender, nationality, and age. Although different people may be aware of it in their own way. What determines musical perception and why some people like rock, while others like classics, let’s try to figure it out.

Soul strings

The term “musical language” is not a metaphor at all: scientists are seriously arguing that it has a right to exist. Music is in fact a peculiar language, the only question is what in this case is called a “word”. Psychologist Galina Ivanchenko in her work “Psychology of Music Perception” speaks about such components of musical language as timbre, rhythm, tempo, pitch, harmony, and loudness.

Musical perception itself is a reflex activity that is carried out by the nervous system under the influence of an irritant – sound waves. It manifests itself in a change in the rhythm of breathing and heartbeat, muscle tension, the work of the organs of internal secretion, and so on. So goosebumps from listening to your favorite songs is a very real physical phenomenon.

And they appear, by the way, for a reason: our brain is able to distinguish harmonious music from inharmonious. Therefore, musical intervals are divided into consonances and dissonances. The former creates in us a sense of completeness, peace and euphony, and the latter – tension and conflict that requires completion, that is, a transition to consonance.

Music can even imitate our speech, or rather its intonation. “The melody reveals the same human ability as in speech: to directly express their emotions by changing the pitch and other properties of sound, albeit in a different form. In other words, melody, as a special, specifically musical way of emotional expression, is the result of a generalization of the expressive possibilities of speech intonation, which have received a new design and independent development, ”the author continues.



It is interesting that not only a certain style of music has its own language, but also a particular composer, piece, and even part of it. One melody speaks the language of sadness, while the other narrates about joy.

Music like a drug

It is known that a melody that a person likes affects his brain, like delicious food and sex: the hormone of pleasure – dopamine is released. Which gray matter zone is activated when you listen to your favorite track? To find out, Robert Zatorre, a renowned musicologist and neurologist at the Montreal Institute of Neurology, conducted an experiment with colleagues. After interviewing 19 volunteers aged 18 to 37 years (10 of them were women, nine were men) about their musical preferences, the scientists gave them to listen to and evaluate 60 pieces of music.

All tracks were heard by the subjects for the first time. Their task was to evaluate each composition and pay for it from their own funds from 0.99 to two dollars in order to receive a disc with the tracks they liked at the end of the experiment. So scientists ruled out the possibility of false assessments on the part of the subjects – hardly anyone would want to pay their hard-earned money for unpleasant music.

Moreover, during the experiment, each participant was connected to an MRI machine, so scientists could accurately record everything that happens in the subjects’ brains during listening. The results were quite interesting. First, the researchers found that it takes only 30 seconds for a person to figure out whether they like a particular composition. Secondly, it was found that a good melody activates several zones in the brain at once, but the nucleus accumbens became the most sensitive – the one that is activated when something meets our expectations. It is precisely this that enters the so-called center of pleasure and manifests itself during alcoholic and drug intoxication, as well as during sexual arousal.

“It’s amazing that a person is anticipating and aroused because of something completely abstract – because of the sound that he needs to hear,” says one of the study co-authors, Dr. Valori Salimpour. – Each person’s nucleus accumbens has an individual shape, which is why it works in a special way. It is also worth noting that due to the constant interactions of the parts of the brain with each melody, we have our own emotional associations”.



Listening to music also activates the auditory cortex of the brain. Interestingly, the more we like this or that track, the stronger its interaction with us – and the more new neural connections are formed in the brain, the very ones that form the basis of our cognitive abilities.

Music improves physical, psychological, cognitive and emotional functioning during physical rehabilitation programs as specialists from getnursingessay.com explained to us. Music also helps people regain their ability to speak after brain injuries and strokes. Moreover it improves the life quality of people with dementia.

Tell me what are you listening and I will tell who you are

Psychologists have found that adolescents who experience certain difficulties in life are more likely to turn to music that is aggressive in its content: for example, they are deprived of parental care or they are offended by their peers. But classics and jazz, as a rule, are chosen by more prosperous children. In the first case, music is important for emotional relaxation, in the second – on its own. True, aggressive songs are often characteristic of all adolescents, as they carry an element of rebellious spirit. With age, the tendencies towards self-expression and maximalism in the majority noticeably decrease, therefore, musical preferences also change – to more calm and measured ones.

However, musical tastes do not always depend on the presence of intrapersonal conflicts: they are often trivially predetermined by temperament. This is understandable, because in the work of the brain, as in a piece of music, there is a rhythm. Its high amplitude prevails among the owners of a strong type of the nervous system – choleric and sanguine people, low – among melancholic and phlegmatic people. Therefore, the former prefer vigorous activity, the latter – more measured. This fact is reflected in musical preferences. People with a strong type of nervous system, as a rule, prefer rhythmic music that does not require a high concentration of attention (rock, pop, rap, and other popular genres). Those who have a weak type of temperament choose calm and melodic genres – classical and jazz. At the same time, it is known that phlegmatic and melancholic people are able to penetrate deeper into the essence of a musical work than more superficial sanguine and choleric people.

However, often the choice of melody depends on the mood. A frustrated sanguine person will listen to Mozart’s Requiem, while a joyful melancholic person will prefer to have fun with guitar bass. The opposite tendency has also been noticed: the tempo of the music can influence the amplitude of the rhythm of the brain. A measured melody lowers it, and a fast one increases it. This fact prompted scientists to believe that listening to various musical genres can even increase the creativity of a child by making his brain work in one or another rhythm.

It is also interesting that such conclusions seem to sweep aside the existence of “bad” music: any, even the most seemingly worthless piece is a unique experience of experiencing certain feelings, a special response to the world around us. The same goes for genres: there are no bad or good ones, all are important in their own way.



Another curious study on musical preferences was conducted by the American sociologist David Greenberg from Cambridge. This time, as many as four thousand volunteers took part in it, who were first offered a choice of different statements, for example: “I always feel when a person says one thing and thinks another” or “If I buy audio equipment, I always pay attention to technical details”.

Then they were given to listen to 50 musical compositions of different genres. The subjects rated the music as liked or not on a nine-point scale. After this, the statements were compared with musical preferences.

It turned out that those with well-developed empathy and sensitivity liked rhythm and blues (a musical style of a song and dance genre), soft rock (light or “soft” rock), and what is called mellow music, that is, melodies with a soft and pleasant sound. In general, these styles cannot be called energetic, but they are permeated with emotional depth and are often saturated with negative emotions. For those who preferred more rhythmic, intense music with positive emotions and a relatively complex structure, the researchers called analysts – people with a rational mindset. In this case, the preferences concerned not only styles but even specific compositions. For example, the songs of jazz singer Billie Holiday “All of me” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” by Queen were more popular with empaths, and one of Scriabin’s etudes, as well as songs “God save the Queen” by The Sex Pistols and “Enter Sandman” musicians from Metallica to analysts.

Other studies published in 2011 found that those with an increased potential for openness to experience tend to prefer more complex and varied music such as classical, jazz, and eclecticism than conservative individuals. Musical preferences are also associated with indicators such as introversion and extraversion. Scientists have found that extroverted people tend to prefer happier social music, such as pop, hip-hop, rap, or electronic music. Introverts tend to choose rock and classics. In addition, extroverts tend to listen to music more often than introverts and are more likely to use it as a background. And more benevolent people are able to get more emotions from listening to music than those who do not have this quality.

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