Music. That struck a chord in your mind didn’t it? This common form of expression universally brings about an amalgamation of feelings. As a pianist and a general music enthusiast, I find myself indulging in various styles of melody and in the process, have made several psychological notes on its footprint on the human psyche. It is common experience that we find solitude and happiness or even trigger emotions such as sadness, guilt or regret, among the various others while listening to music. How is this form of expression so intensely linked to our psychological responses and interpretations? What are the subtleties of its impact on the human mind? What is the cognitive formula of music? These interesting facts should grant a bit of perspective on this form of art.

Music training can significantly improve cognitive and motor skills

We have encountered many parents encouraging their children to take part in the training of music or an instrument to improve their intellectual abilities. However, the study and practice of music is known to have a constructive influence on various sectors of life. One study showed that children who had three or more years of musical instrument training performed better in auditory discrimination abilities and fine motor skills than children with no training.

They also performed better on vocabulary and nonverbal reasoning skills, which involve understanding and analyzing visual information, such as identifying relationships, similarities and differences between shapes and patterns.

Findings also suggest that keeping the brain tuned with music slows down cognitive decline as we age. “As people get older, for example, we know their reaction times get slower,” Simon Landry, the study’s lead author and a Ph.D. student in biomedical ethics, said in a statement. “So if we know that playing a musical instrument increases reaction times, then maybe playing an instrument will be helpful for them.” It is highly fascinating to note how the nature of the above improved responses have no direct correlation to the practice of music.

Music helps us exercise

I can picture many heads nodding in approval of this fact. Research on the effects of music during exercise has been done for decades. In 1911, an American researcher, Leonard Ayres, found that cyclists pedaled faster while listening to music than they did in silence. Music is shown to not only motivate us to work harder, but it also improves the energy consumption by the body. A 2012 study showed that cyclists who listened to music required 7% less oxygen to do the same work as those who cycled in silence.

The mechanism employed by music to incline the brain towards exercise is rather intriguing. Music overrides the brain’s need for rest and indications of fatigues. Scientists have observed that the brain generates responses promoting us to take a break during exercise, when we experience exhaustion. Listening to music competes for our brain’s attention, and can help us overrule signals of fatigue, though this is mostly beneficial for low- and moderate-intensity exercise. During high-intensity exercise, music isn’t as powerful at distracting our brain from the pain and intensity of the workout.

Some recent research has shown that there’s a ceiling effect on music at around 145 bpm, where anything higher doesn’t seem to add much motivation, so choose your tracks carefully while setting up your workout playlist. Tempo is also a vital factor which sets the brain to a rhythm you can groove into and enjoy your exercise session. 

Ambient noise can improve creativity

We all enjoy pumping tunes and inspirational beats while cracking onto some physical work. However, it is common experience that loud music is not in the best interest of creativity. While it is popular belief that silence brings about the best productivity and efficiency, ambient noise is proved to be a better driver.

The mechanism to this is fairly simple. The presence of moderate noise increases processing difficulty which promotes abstract processing, leading to higher creativity. In simple terms, when the brain is posed with moderate external difficulty, it becomes more equipped and sharp to handle analytical and testing situations. However, loud music overrides the brain’s ability to process multiple things at once and hence becomes a hindrance. This is very similar to how temperature and lighting can affect our productivity and a slightly more crowded place can be beneficial.

Nature of the music can predict how we interpret neutral faces

Our music folder is filled with tracks that bring about pure euphoria or songs that instill overwhelming sadness among various other emotions. Interestingly, the role of music doesn’t stop at the stage of emotions alone. Studies have showed that the tracks we listen to influence our interpretation of neutral faces and situations.

It is observed that people elucidate neutral faces and experiences as happy or joyful after having listened to a cheerful track and the contrary also applies. The association of expressions is mostly accurate with neutral scenarios but it is known to happen for other facial expressions as well.

Something else that’s really interesting about how our emotions are affected by music is that there are two kind of emotions related to music: perceived emotions and felt emotions. For example, it is possible for us to understand the emotional construction of a musical piece without having experiences which relate to those emotions. This is the reason why several people appreciate and enjoy musical pieces which have sad undertones, but don’t feel sad themselves.

Our music taste can predict our personality

Although this point is not entirely true and is highly debatable, it is quite thought provoking. In a study of couples, the top ten songs on the respective partner’s playlists proved to be a fairly reliable prediction of their character and personal traits. The study used five personality traits for the test: openness to experience, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and emotional stability.

Interestingly, some traits were more accurately predicted based on the person’s listening habits than others. For instance, openness to experience, extraversion and emotional stability were the easiest to guess correctly. Conscientiousness, on the other hand, wasn’t obvious based on musical taste.

Here is a rough breakdown of personality-music associations:

Blues fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing, gentle and at ease

Jazz fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing and at ease

Classical music fans have high self-esteem, are creative, introvert and at ease

Rap fans have high self-esteem and are outgoing

Opera fans have high self-esteem, are creative and gentle

Country and western fans are hardworking and outgoing

Reggae fans have high self-esteem, are creative, not hardworking, outgoing, gentle and at ease

Dance fans are creative and outgoing but not gentle

Indie fans have low self-esteem, are creative, not hard working, and not gentle

Bollywood fans are creative and outgoing

Rock/heavy metal fans have low self-esteem, are creative, not hard-working, not outgoing, gentle, and at ease

Chart pop fans have high self-esteem, are hardworking, outgoing and gentle, but are not creative and not at ease

Soul fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing, gentle, and at ease

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I am a voracious reader and follower of Anime, TV shows, K-Drama, everything DC and Marvel and music across all genres. I am a tech enthusiast and a passionate pianist. I express some of the billions thoughts that go through my head across all these platforms. Oh, I am also pursuing Chemical Engineering from MIT Manipal.

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