How Music “Affects” Us

Written by: Ashley Koh Yu Xi (21-A1), Katelyn Joshy (21-U1), Leia Ong Rui En (20-U1), Lim Zi Loong, Zexel (21-E2), Zenov Liu Fan (20-U1)

Designed by: Jervis Ch’ng Yun Ping (21-U5)

At the end of a long and tiring day, the burden of your responsibilities weigh on your mind, as the sound of hurried footsteps, muffled chatter and the familiar chime of the train doors closing surround you. It is so easy to get lost in all the noise. Yet, once you plug earphones in, the bustle of the city is instantly drowned out by  the soothing balm of music. 

Indeed, as William Congreve once famously quipped: “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast”, music truly has an effect on its listeners both psychologically and physically. But how does it affect our emotions? How do a few notes strung together with choice words being sung to those notes move us so powerfully? In this article, we want to help you understand how this happens. With this deeper knowledge, perhaps you’ll be able to enjoy music more when you blast especially emotional tunes to cry to. 

The Science of Affects

To first understand why we feel emotion when we listen to music, we must first uncover what Affects are: an Affect is a psychological term that encompasses a broad range of feelings that people can experience. It is the outward expression of both emotions and feelings. In other words, an Affect is basically the facial expression or body movement that indicates emotion. 

In a musical context, Affects indicate our perception or feeling of emotions. These powerful emotional responses are evoked just by listening to music. 

Ever wonder why we feel ‘chills’ or goosebumps during parts of a song? Research has indicated that chills are an automatic ‘fight’ response in reaction to stimuli that our bodies initially perceive to be threatening; this is also the case for certain musical moments in a song. Because music is non-threatening (unless it is deafeningly loud), the response then turns to one of pleasure. 

Dopamine is released especially during peak or unexpected musical moments such as the chorus, or a beat-drop. It could also be in response to a particularly wonderful ad-lib that the singer has performed, or a surprise change in harmony or key. The possibilities are endless! 

Major and Minor Feels

With these in mind, how then exactly does a piece of music make us feel like we’re flying, or even a profound sense of dread? Believe it or not, certain musical features are key to evoking these emotions — we go more into these below.

KEY

The way we perceive our music decides how music affects us, right? Well, there is more than just that! Ever listened to a song that makes you feel all gloomy? Or one that fills you up with that serotonin boost you needed? These emotions you’ve experienced are all thanks to the Western key in music — the emotional center of a piece. A piece of music in the major key will make you feel happiness, positivity, optimism and hopefulness, while the reverse is true where a piece in the minor key will likely make you feel sadness, pessimism and even fear.

For instance, in Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons: Spring”, the liveliness and beauty of spring can be easily visualised because the piece is in the E Major key, where the mix of short and complex melodies shape a tone of merriness throughout the piece. 

In contrast, though pop songs today rarely make use of the minor key, Lukas Graham’s “7 Years” challenged the norm beautifully with it being written in the G Minor key. By doing so, Graham was able to present the sense of nostalgia and loneliness he experiences as he reflects back on the advice that he had received from his parents throughout his teenage years. 

TEMPO

Slow, fast, medium. All forms of music, regardless of genre, can utilise tempo to great effect, whether it’s to get your heart racing and pumping you full of adrenaline or to slow you down and give you a sense of peace and comfort. 

One example of this would be the famed “William Tell Overture”. From the first few notes that the trumpet plays, you can already tell how fast and exhilarating this piece will be. With a measure of 153 beats-per-minute (BPM), the average listener can quickly understand why this piece serves as a brilliant and heart-pounding finish to the opera that its composer, Rossini, wrote. 

On the other, more modern, hand, the song “Georgia” by Vance Joy adopts a slower tempo —  71 BPM, in fact. At more than half the tempo of the previous piece, the song is less heart-pounding and closer to a lullaby. Its slower tempo helps it to achieve its intended effect, however, as the more glacial tempo helps to convey the love the singer has for his partner and sends a signal of the peace and comfort he feels with her. 

LYRICS AND WORDPAINTING

Have you ever heard a melody that just seems to perfectly fit the lyrics attached to it? You’ve likely experienced a good bit of songwriting utilising wordpainting, then. Simply, wordpainting is writing a vocal melody that exemplifies the inherent meaning of the lyrics in a musical way. 

For example, famous rock band Queen’s song “Don’t Stop Me Now” incorporates wordpainting in the line “oh, oh, oh, oh, and explode!”, with the word “explode” being sung in the highest pitch, or register, serving as a melodic catharsis. The accompanying major key also evokes that feeling of euphoria. 

Similarly, sadness could be represented with a musical “sigh”, or a succession of slow, low notes. 

INSTRUMENTATION (Musical Timbre)

The very medium by which music is presented to listeners, instruments play a vital role in influencing musical moods and emotional responses. Different instruments produce different musical timbres. A musical timbre refers to the quality of the sound; it allows you to differentiate the sound of a violin from a piano, regardless of the note being played. Musicians combine a multitude of timbral qualities through harnessing the power of several types of instruments and synthesizers in a performance. 

To achieve a more melancholic mood, for instance, musicians can use cellos, which produce sounds characterised by their hollow and low pitch. This will evoke a sombre feeling within listeners and accordingly, translate to them feeling a little ‘low’, too.

Listening with Awareness

Bearing these aspects of music in mind, they do not just exist on their own; they work together in tandem to produce nuanced and multiple moods in a single piece of music. 

The next time you listen to music, you can think about how perhaps a nostalgic or wistful mood is created when you listen to a song with a fast tempo but a sad-sounding (minor) melody; take Japanese artist Mondo Grosso’s “Labyrinth” for example. Alternatively, how a slow tempo with soft and mellow instruments makes you feel calm — any lo-fi song is a good representative (and why they’re so good for studying!). 

Some songs can even be purposefully misleading in their choice of melody and lyrics. Many Japanese pop songs use this technique, such as “Compared Child (くらべられ)” by the band TUYU. Though on the surface, the song is in a light G major key and therefore sounds bubbly and cheerful, it actually portrays the depressing reality for a persona who is constantly being compared to her peers. As the song progresses, we gradually realise the toll it takes on her, and therefore the subversive nature of the light melody. 

Perhaps when listening to songs, you can look up their lyrics. In the process, there is a chance you may discover more purposefully subversive songs!

Music for the Soul

Naturally, music has a major effect on our emotional well-being: more specifically, our moods and the ability to influence them in a very real way. Upbeat music with a lively tempo in the early mornings can energise and motivate just as well as any cup of coffee. Listening to hymns and songs of worship help some to keep hopeful in times of despair, and soothing, chill music with a relaxed tempo may allow people to unwind. 

It isn’t just for you or me; even professional athletes and dancers use a specific music playlist to channel their emotions to achieve the right mindsets so as to perform at their optimal best. 

But why? It is believed that the tempo, rhythm and even song lyrics of music one listens to directly influences the moods of listeners with upbeat songs getting you all hyped up and downcast ballads making you feel a bit blue. 

Music also helps one de-stress and mentally rejuvenate. Research has shown that music can be a particularly effective stimulus to moderate emotional states. Beauty lies also in the ear of the beholder — music that you personally enjoy may lead to the release of neurotransmitters associated with reward, such as dopamine, or the “happy hormone”. This is especially so closer towards the musical peak of the song when one typically anticipates the best parts of the song. This improves our mood and mitigates the effects of stress and worries, as we lose ourselves in the pristine harmonies. 

Phrasing Off

“Music is the shorthand for emotion”. Famed author Leo Tolstoy wrote these words. Even in the period that he lived — Russia in the 1800s — music had already become inextricably linked with our emotions. In fact, music being used to convey and affect emotions goes as far back as the prehistoric ages, when we were banging on drums made from animal skin and blowing on primitive wind instruments to make sounds. As long as we have lived, we have used music to express and convey our feelings as well as the messages we couldn’t possibly say using merely words.

Ultimately, music as a means of expression and empathy are what makes us human, and nothing can ever take that away from us. Play on!

Sick Beats 

While not featured in our column Sick Beats, here is a playlist of the songs featured in this article!

Morning pick-me-ups: 

Grace Vanderwall — Hideaway 

Harry Styles — Adore You

Sabrina Carpenter — In The Middle Of Starting Over

Sabrina Carpenter — Let Me Move You

Imagine Dragons — On Top of The World

Sofia Carson — Chillin’ Like a Villain 

TUYU — Compared Child

When you feel like giving up (gospel):

Celine Dion & Andrea Bocelli — The Prayer

Hillsong UNITED — Oceans (Where Feet May Fail) 

Tunes to destress: 

Coldplay — Paradise

Sabrina Carpenter — Can’t Blame A Girl For Trying

Ed Sheeran — Photograph 

Ed Sheeran — Afterglow

Sabrina Carpenter — Right Now

Vance Joy — Georgia 

Yiruma — River Flows In You 

Mondo Grosso — Labyrinth

For when you feel down: 

Lukas Graham — 7 Years

Andra Day — Rise up 

Queen — Don’t Stop Me Now

Classical: 

Rossini — William Tell Overture 

Antonio Vivaldi — The Four Seasons

Bibliography:

Swaminathan, S., Schellenberg, E.G. (2015). Current Emotion Research in Music Psychology. Retrieved 15 August, 2020 from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273675140_Current_Emotion_Research_in_Music_Psychology

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02044/full

Schaefer, T., Sedlmeier, P., Stadtler, C. & Huron, D. (2013, August 13). The psychological functions of music listening. Retrieved 15 August, 2020 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3741536/

Schwarm, B. (2020, February 7). The Four Seasons. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 27 June, 2013 from 

https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Four-Seasons-by-Vivaldi

DBT Centre. (2017, May 30). What is the difference between Affects, Emotion and Mood?https://www.dbtcentersouthbay.com/what-is-the-difference-between-affect-emotion-and-mood/

Affect in Psychology: Definition & Types. (2016, March 23). Retrieved from https://study.com/academy/lesson/affect-in-psychology-definition-types.html.

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