The Psychology of Music: 6 Reasons We Love (and Need) Music

August 30, 2012

Psychology of Music










While technology has made accessing only the music you like far easier, the fact remains that humans seem to seek out music for nearly all of the same reasons.

Music grabs our emotions in a universal way that few other mediums can manage.

This isn’t just an opinion I feel inclined to wax poetic about either: In a study by Lonsdale and North (2010) in which the researchers gathered and analyzed the reasons for listening to music from a sample of young people, 6 universal functions of music were found.

In this post, I’m going to count down those functions as rated by the researchers in descending order.

6.) To Learn About Others (and the World)

Funnily enough, music seems to be able to “communicate” a lot about a person, both in terms of the music they create and the music they enjoy.

Psychological research backs up the importance of the information music sends out to others about our personalities.

In one study participants could broadly judge another’s personality solely on the basis of their top 10 songs.

Music also seems to reflect the current state of the society it was made in.

According to Dodds and Danforth, lyrics from many popular songs saw a trend of lyrics reflecting a depressed outlook on society in 1985, with a slow upturn around 1990.

The really interesting part? This change was seen across all genres.

5.) For Personal Identity

Researchers found that the type of music that we like is often a reflection of something that we see inside ourselves.

This thought process is a mix of the psychological processes of modelling and framing.

We also seem to discover ourselves through music.

Music often serves as an a form of expression to teach us who we are (or who we think we are/want to be) and where we belong.

One interesting point of note is that according to recent research of top 10 lyrics, the results indicated that popular music is becoming more narcissistic, with many lyrics focusing on anti-social & self-interested behavior.

4.) Forming Relationships

While music can be a private activity, there is often a very important social function attached to music and its many genres.

Music tends to be a point of conversation for most people, we’re often inclined to listen and share music with other people.

Love and music tend to relate closely with one another, in fact, much closer than you might think: researchers conducted an experiment to see if music had any effect on romantic interest (ie, would playing romantic music make women more inclined to date those asking?).

The answer was a resounding yes.

The percentage of women who agreed to a date almost doubled from 28% to 52% after they had been played some romantic music.

The song that the researchers played was Je l’aime à mourir, if you were wondering.


2/3.) Diversion & mood management

These two actually tied in the study, they are also closely related.

Mood management: Researchers found while music (obviously) has cues for all emotional responses, music was very closely connected to sadness and other “low” moods.

Music was found to relieve stress, tension, and aid in dealing with emotional pain.

I recall reading a very sad story on Reddit about a man who lost his wife to cancer, and he was asking for sad songs to listen to. When a user replied “Don’t dwell in your grief,”, his response was:

 This is art’s great moment for me.

This is when art steps up. Listening to these artists makes me feel less alone in my grief. It reminds me that others have gone through what I’m going through.

That I’m really not as alone as I feel right now.

His entire response was truly touching.

It also reflects the healing power that music seems to hold: those who have underwent painful medical procedures were found to have positive responses to music during their most stressful post-op moments. Sad songs have been shown to be beneficial for mood, even though they are slightly depressing.

(One thing that stood out to me was that the line “It reminds me that others…” was closely touched upon in the study: music can be communal even when listened to alone).

Music also serves to divert us; it’s often used as an escape from the mundane or a haven for our when our minds don’t know “what else to do” at the moment. Be warned that music does decrease cognitive ability on difficult tasks.

1.) Positivity

Time to end things on a high note. 🙂

Music had the closest connection with having a positive outlook (even more so than “low” moods), and it’s really no wonder: it is intrinsically tied to positive mood management, helping us make our good times even better.

In fact, recent research has conclusively shown that music makes us more hopeful:

…participants were falsely told they’d done badly on a task.

Those who were played some positive music afterwards, were more hopeful about the future than those left in silence.

Funny that music would have such clear connections to the two ends of our emotional spectrum, or perhaps it’s not so surprising at all.

Thanks for reading! 🙂