The Science of Music

Illustration by Emily Xu

Raymond Matthews
Opinions Editor

Music gives us unique insights into pop culture that reflect dominant social views, shared values, stylistic trends, and even our own psychology. Chances are when you find yourself a frat party listening to a dubstep remix of a trap remix of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me,” you’re not actually thinking about the deeper impact that it’s having on your brain. 

But, scientifically speaking, it is actually activating complex neurological and psychological responses that vary depending on the music’s style and genre. Initially, music triggers pleasure centers that subsequently release dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for happiness. 

Beyond just dopamine, specific genres can release various other neurotransmitters that may affect your mood as well as your physical and psychological state. For instance, downtempo music like smooth jazz that fall within the 60 beat-per-minute range encourage your brain to synchronize with the beat, which in turn creates alpha brain waves. 

These waves indicate that one’s brain is active, but in a very relaxed state, which causes many people to seek out music with a slow, rhythmic tempo as a means of stress relief. Researchers have also observed similar effects in listeners who favor classical music with a slow, quiet rhythm, much like other downtempo genres like smooth jazz. 

Classical music is specifically associated with various physiological effects like “slowing the pulse and heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and decreasing the levels of cortisol in the body.” 

On the other end of the spectrum, genres like rap and hip-hop with a more uptempo style and aspirational, upwardly mobile lyrics can be therapeutic for those who may suffer from depression and other mental health challenges. 

In a recent study conducted by Cambridge University’s Department of Psychology, resident psychiatrist Dr. Akeem Sule and clinical neuroscientist Dr. Becky Inkster found that the “rags to riches” narratives often found in rap create “positive visual imagery” that some find very helpful.

Said imagery can give listeners a more aspirational, optimistic image of their lives, which for some can encourage a progression to a more constructive, positive mental state. In this sense, rap can be a therapeutic catharsis for those who struggle with depression and low self-esteem, as it facilitates higher self-esteem and a hopeful vision of the future. 

Beyond the individual, music can be therapeutic for collective cultures that have experienced shared trauma or seek to assert a distinct identity of their own. 

This phenomenon was prominent in the African American community, starting with Harlem Renaissance musicians like Sister Rosetta Sharp, along with her successors Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix.

Each of these musicians were esteemed rock-and-roll artists who are credited with creating the rock genre as we know it. According to a recent study from Humboldt State University, fans of rock and heavy metal music share two key traits: a strong sense of individuality, and a strong sense of community. 

Since rock music usually has an uptempo stylistic flare along with somewhat counter-cultural messages, it makes sense that the African American community resonated with these messages as it resisted cultural erasure. 

The counter-cultural subject matter allowed the black community to assert a unique cultural identity while the uptempo cadence and rhythm imparted much needed optimism into a community that faced constant oppression.

The same principles apply to more modern music. Rap, R&B, country, pop, and many other genres are all used by various communities and individuals to assert a unique identity. Said identities are intrinsically connected to the psychological and emotional responses each genre evokes in listeners.

Therefore, music extends well beyond artistic and individual expression. It initiates complex neurological and psychological responses in listeners and, in turn, affects cultural identity and expression in the world around us. These nuances are still being studied, and there is much left to learn.