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The Psychology of Music

What is it that makes humans natural lovers of music? Hard wired genetics, or a quality that we develop through constantly being exposed to sounds? This question has been bugging me for a while now and over the last few weeks I have been lucky enough to meet several psychologists who have managed to give me a few very interesting answers..

Music as a language

One theory suggests that the reason why humans can naturally enjoy music is because it resembles so closely to the language we speak, of course many songs feature human vocals but I’m talking about the elements that make up the sounds. Music is often rhythmic, varied and uses repetitive elements – just like our language. Because of its similarities, we are able to literally use music as a language, as many African communities still do to this day.

A study by Dr Dale Purves, Professor of Neurology at Duke University showed that the most popular genres of music are those that use the most similar sounding scales to the ones that we use in our language.

However, this doesn’t explain the addiction and euphoria that we get from music, so surely there is something else going on?

Music Controls our Emotions

We all experience a variety of different emotions naturally, but music allows us to experience emotions artificially by associating certain sounds or specific songs to events or representations that trigger emotions within us. As an example, I often listen to acoustic music to cheer me up on a rainy day because the sound reminds me of warm summer days. Our brains enjoy experiencing a variation of emotions – listening to music allows us to satisfy this need with quick fixes.

Do we Learn to Love Music?

As humans, we instinctively react to certain sounds in certain ways, but as we experience new emotion provoking scenarios, we begin to associate certain sounds with emotions so that when we hear that sound again we are reminded of how we felt the first time we heard it, and that’s the bit that we love.

In an attempt to prove whether our reactions to sound is instinctive or learnt, Radio 1 carried out a test to see if a group of primitive tribes people would have the same reaction to a collection of dissonant and non-dissonant sounds as a group of modernised people from the developed world, all of the groups tested showed the same reaction to the sounds highlighting that our reactions to dissonance are universal.

Music & Psychological Manipulation

The music industry is constantly using psychological manipulation to increase the success of new music releases. Naturally, we all associate music with events (which are often what was going on when you first heard that particular song) so many music marketers will use subtle representations and marketing placement to ensure that your first impression of that song triggers some kind of desired emotion. Think of the following examples

  • Hearing a song in the summer time and then saying “that song reminds me of last summer”.
  • Hearing a song when you meet someone new and thinking about them every time you hear that song afterwards.
  • Going to a live concert hearing a song, then thinking about that concert every time you listen to the studio album
  • Watching a movie with a memorable song and then thinking of the movie every time you hear the song on the radio.

This is all subliminal marketing, if you can relate a song to a desired event then it helps to either promote the event or add a representation to the song that triggers a set of emotions to make you react to the song (perhaps even buy it!)

This may sound all dark and unethical, but like any form of marketing, it is just a way of making your job of finding something that you will like easier and making sure that when you do find it, you love it.

What are your thoughts?

  • Are the psychological tactics used in music marketing unethical?
  • Do you think there are other reasons to why we love music?
  • Does music lose its touch when you over analyse it? Why do you think this is?
  • Can you imagine a world without music?

Photo Credit: elisabeth

About Marcus Taylor

In 2013, Marcus Taylor won the award for 'Young Visionary of the Year' at MIDEM. Marcus is passionate about marketing and the music industry, and has consulted to some of the biggest names in the music industry through his agency, Venture Harbour. Marcus founded this website in 2009, and has reached over half a million musicians ever since.


  • Oday says:

    Hi Marcus, thanks for the book btw :D

    1. Psychological tactics in music is definitely not wrong, it’s just enhancement of the entertainment. For example, I first heard Will Smith’s Switch by the pool on a hot day, and on the radio driving home. Now I remember the warmth of summer when I hear the song, so it’s like an added bonus. And is it a coincidence that a song released in the summer had an energetic feel to it? Would it be the same if released in the winter? Doubt it.

    2. I consider music more or less innate. Music conveys emotion, language conveys thoughts, math conveys logic. The 3 pillars of communication among humans, IMHO. I would guess that’s why we love it.

    3. I also study comics and writing, and no, over analyzing doesn’t take anything away. Really, when either writing, drawing, or making music, I don’t recant all the technical details I’ve learned; it just flows forth from the subconscious. But if I’m in a rut, it’s great to be able to go through a mental checklist of possible problems.

    4. A world without music? Sure, like a world without language: radically different, and who knows what it would be like. Although language is probably a little more important.

  • I can't imagine the world without music because it is in our system and when we set our mood into it we constantly change the genre we want to listen to sooth our mood.

  • I can't imagine the world without music because it is in our system and when we set our mood into it we constantly change the genre we want to listen to sooth our mood.

  • I can't imagine the world without music because it is in our system and when we set our mood into it we constantly change the genre we want to listen to sooth our mood.

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