Psychology of music

Music psychology refers to the behavior of people produced or modified by the emotional force of music.

The approaches of music psychology are manifold, from musical theory, musicology, neuropsychology, social psychology, psychology of education, psychobiology, etc. In addition, the psychology of music and musicology are related to Studies of history (archeology and prehistory), cultures, ethnology and anthropology, sociology, philosophy (aesthetics and semiotics), acoustics and psychoacoustics, information sciences and mathematics.


Music has been present in all human societies since the beginning of time. Pythagoras related music to mathematics and to the universe. Aristotle considered that music influenced the moods of people and had benefits and uses in education, purification and the state of rest. Plato advised the music to fight the anguish, the fear and the terror and to obtain a state of serenity.

Until the Middle Ages music was associated with divinity and its mediating role between God, nature and man. In the sixteenth century, the physician Ambroise Paré emphasized that he associated music with the ability to mitigate the pain of certain ailments.

Goldberg variations, composed by Johann Sebastian Bach commissioned by Count Kaiserling to avoid nights of insomnia, are used today to calm bodies and minds.

In the 19th century, scientific research began on the application of music to the treatment of mental illness. They also studied their influence on emotions and their physiological effects as responses in heart rate, blood circulation and breathing.

Scientists now confirm that the ear is the most qualified of the sensory stimuli of the brain. Of these, 20% correspond to sight, 30% to taste, smell and touch and 50% correspond to the ear, which awakens and promotes the brain, in addition to protecting it against deterioration.

The journey of sound (of music) through the human body helps us to explain its impact. Once the auditory system has been completed (auditory canopy, external auditory canal, ossicles, oval window, cochlea – basilar membrane -, cochlear nerve, vestibulocochlear nerve and internal auditory canal), the sound information passes to the brainstem and from the thalamus to the amygdala and finally to the auditory cortex.

In the brainstem are performed:

  • Detection of pitch, rhythm and acoustic patterns of perceived sound
  • The location of the sound bulb
  • First body autonomic responses are triggered: rhythm synchronization with body movement and synchronization of rhythm with the respiratory system
  • Attention and memory systems are activated: excitation of the cerebral cortex through the norandrenergic system to increase attention and mechanisms of memory through the cholinergic system. Serotonin is involved in the regulation of impulses that can lead to the release of acetylcholine (neurotransmitter that regulates synaptic activity) and noradrenaline (a neurotransmitter that facilitates attention and learning ability).

The action potentials are then transmitted to the thalamus, which decides what information is directed towards the amygdala and the cortical areas.

In the amygdala occurs:

  • Evaluation of the emotional content of perceived sound information
  • The management of the necessary emotional resources through the autonomous system and the hypothalamus
  • Storage in the memory of sound information perceived through the hippocampus

Finally, the action potentials reach the auditory cortex where they are transformed into fine musical perception (tone, melody, rhythm), a phenomenon not yet explained by neuroscience.

The auditory cortex maintains associative connections with other brain areas and together they integrate hearing with other sensorial modalities: visual, tactile, gustative and olfactory and with superior functions: memory, imagination, emotions, cognition.

Music activates virtually all brain regions described by neuroscientists, both in the higher cognitive centers of the brain and in the more primitive ones such as the brainstem and cerebellum. The frontal lobes involved in planning, motivation and the formation of expectations are activated through musical listening, as are the networks responsible for memory, associations and attentional systems. Music causes activity in the reticular activation system, a brain circuit associated with the autonomic nervous system and can produce physical reactions such as sweating, sexual arousal and chills in the spine. Laboratory studies have also shown that music can change:

  • Heart rate
  • The breathing
  • Blood pressure
  • The volume of the blood pulse
  • Brain waves
  • The galvanic response of the skin
  • The neurochemical levels of dopamine, adrenaline, norepinephrine and serotonin.

The perception of pleasant music activates some of the same areas of the brain that are stimulated by drug use, enjoyable meals, or sex. For example, cocaine intake activates the nucleus accumbens, the thalamus, the insula, the hippocampus, and the amygdala. When chocolate is eaten, the insula, the orbitofrontal cortex and the region under the corpus callosum are activated.

Emotional responses to music

The relationship between music and emotions is evident for some researchers (Juslin and Sloboda, 2001)

However, the apparent ability of music to induce strong emotions is a mystery that has fascinated both experts and laymen at least since ancient Greece. “How the sounds, which are, after all, only sounds, have the power to move so deeply those involved with them?” Explaining this mechanism is important, since music is already used in several applications that boast of its effectiveness in inducing emotions, such as film music, marketing and therapy.

There are authors who argue that to understand the impact of music on emotions some underlying mechanisms must be considered. Specifically, the following six mechanisms:

  • Brainstem reflexes: some of the acoustic characteristics of music are considered by the brainstem as signs of a potentially important and urgent event (sudden, loud, dissonant sounds or fast tempo patterns that induce excitement or dislike)
  • Evaluative conditioning: the stimulus induced by a piece of music was repeatedly associated in time with a positive or negative event.
  • Emotional contagion: music has an emotional expression that is imitated by the listener inducing the same emotion in his brain.
  • Visual images: music evokes visual images that in turn produce emotions in the listener because of the close interaction between music and images.
  • Episodic memory: music evokes a memory of a particular event in the life of the listener. Example: “Honey, our song is playing”
  • Musical Expectation: An emotion is induced in the listener because a specific characteristic of music contradicts, violates, delays, surprises or confirms the listener’s expectations about the continuation of music.

Only a couple of years ago (see bibliography at the end) MIT neuroscientists have identified a neural population in the human auditory cortex that responds selectively to sounds classified as music, but not to speech or other environmental sounds.

Music, learning and health

Listening to music while learning a new physical ability can help increase the connectivity (in the white matter tract) that links the auditory and motor regions of the brain, according to a new study from the University of Edinburgh (see bibliography at the end).

Music therapy, according to the WFMT is able to improve our physical and psychological health as well as promote and facilitate communication, learning, mobilization, expression, organization or other therapeutic goals. Some of the factors that could explain the effectiveness of music therapy are:

  1. Attentional Factor: Music has the ability to attract our attention more powerfully than other sensory stimuli.
  2. Emotional factor: Music is capable of modulating emotions and provoking emotional responses in us, involving cortical and subcortical areas.
  3. Cognitive factor. Music, as a neurocognitive entity, carries several cognitive functions in its processing. This factor implies memory associated with music (coding, storage and retrieval) and the various aspects involved in the analysis of music.
  4. Motor-behavioral factor. Music is capable of evoking movement patterns even unconsciously.
  5. Interpersonal factor: Music implies communication and, as such, can be used to train non-verbal communication skills.


If you want to know a little bit more …


Juslin, P.N. y Västfjäll, D. (2008) Emotional responses to music: The need to consider underlying mechanisms. Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2008), 31.

Scherer, K.R. y Zentner, M.R. (2001) Emotional effects of music: production rules. Juslin, P.N. & Sloboda, J.A. (Ed.) (2001) Music and emotion: theory and research. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Norman-Haignere,. S. et al. (2015) Distinct Cortical Pathways for Music and Speech Revealed by Hypothesis-Free Voxel Decomposition. Neuron 88. December 16, 2015. Elsevier Inc.

Deutsch, D. (1982) The Psychology of Music. Academic Press Inc.

Serra, M. y Jauset, J.A. (2016) La música y su influencia en la educación, las emociones y la salud. Encuesta a Psicólogos. Sinfonía Virtual. Ed. 31 Verano 2016.

Lacárcel, J. (2003) Psicología de la música y emoción musical. Educatio nº 20-21. Diciembre 2003.


Other documents and websites of interest in the topic: