5 Ways Music Affects the Brain — And They're Not Necessarily Positive

Frends The Clip Earbuds/Amazon

Music permeates most of our lives whether we realize it or not. If we're not playing it on our own from smartphones and stereos, then we hear music played on television shows, in films, in movie trailers, quietly playing in the background at cafes, while roaming department stores, etc. Though the benefits of listening to music are varied, there are caveats to its purported utility — listening to music while performing certain everyday activities can occasionally have an adverse (or at least unintended) effect due to the limitations of our attention span or our overly receptive subconscious.

Here are five ways that music affects the brain.

Read more:

Frends The Clip Earbuds/Amazon

1. Music can influence how closely you pay attention to a task, depending on your taste.

In a 2008 study titled "Effects of Background Music on Concentration of Workers," authors Rong-Hwa Huang and Yi-Nuo Shih attempt to analyze how different types of background music and levels of noise (including silence) influence the listener's concentration during an exam.

The kicker is that their method also included music the test subjects enjoyed. This variable better re-enacted the test subjects' fluctuations of reception and attention while performing tasks in a shared space (e.g., a student typing a paper in a cafe), and therefore helped to gauge deviations. In the same vein, including songs that the test subjects enjoyed, better reflected the common listening habits of playing music with earphones in order to drown out the world and help ease the inanity of a tedious task (as opposed to exacerbating the boredom by listening to music one doesn't like). This variable proved to be salient because their collected data showed that preference for a song or genre was more distracting, and proved more influential in affecting one's attention than general noise and volume.

In their conclusion, Huang and Shih suggested "[avoiding] music that workers strongly like or dislike" in shared communal spaces, and "avoiding such music can help avoid unduly impacting listener attention and, consequently, work performance."

Touchstone Pictures

2. Music can affect your driving, for better or for worse.

Driving while singing (colloquially known as "caraoke") can be a fun and relatively private activity for those who fancy themselves as the next Whitney Houston or Adele, but don't necessarily have the pipes to back it up. A more practical reason to sing along to a song in the car might be to stay awake, particularly during a long drive. Beyond the conjecture of your fatigue while operating a vehicle (which in itself is precarious and inadvisable), the seemingly harmless act of listening to a song behind the wheel, especially one that you enjoy, can pose an inadvertent risk. 

In "Background Music as a Risk Factor for Distraction Among Young-Novice Drivers," researchers Warren Brodsky and Zack Slor analyze how the moods and tempos of different genres, as well as listening to songs from a preferred genre, affect a driver's physical behavior. Enthusiastic head bopping, dramatic head turning (i.e., during a climactic part of a song), in-seat rocking and dancing all divert the driver's eyes away from the road and preoccupy them to some pernicious degree. These behaviors raise the risk of an accident because it influences a driver's propensity to speed, their capacity to brake and react and their ability to turn — both in terms of leaving enough distance from the street corner, as well as checking before steering in a safe direction.

Brodsky and Slor's data showed that electronic dance music, such as trance and techno, as well as rock and punk were among the riskiest in terms of unsafe driving practices. Regardless of genre, drivers who listened to music of their preference tended to be more reckless, concluding that "in-cabin listening provides optimal conditions for distraction that can result in driver miscalculation, inaccuracy, driver error, traffic violations and driver aggressiveness."


3. The tone and mood of a song you're listening to can alter how you interpret the expression of the next person you see.

While we're on the subject of Adele, you should probably avoid interacting with someone melancholic and forlorn after listening to one of her songs. In "Crossmodal Transfer of Emotion by Music," psychologists Nidhya Logeswaran and Joydeep Bhattacharya illustrate the correlation between musical emotions and visual emotions by utilizing a form of conditioning called "musical priming." The stimuli in charge of perceiving visual cues are amplified due to an auditory mood or tone. In other words, after listening to a sad song, the "transference of emotion" gets projected onto someone's face, so the perception of a sad expression becomes heightened and neurologically exaggerated.

Logeswaran and Bhattacharya explain that this amplification is due to how stimuli react in the brain:

"An early [electroencephalogram] study demonstrated a characteristic difference in cortical brain activation patterns: positive musical excerpts produced a more pronounced lateralization towards the left fronto-temporal cortices, whereas negative musical excerpts produced a right fronto-temporal activation pattern. This early result is supported by recent studies showing that left frontal areas are involved with the processing of positive music and right frontal areas with the negative music. Similar frontal asymmetry is well reported for the processing of affective visual stimuli."

Which is to say: Their tests showed that neurological patterns of musical and visual activity nearly overlap, even though the "musical priming" in a test subject consisted of a brief 15-second excerpt.

4. Music can trick you into shopping more (although probably not in the way you think).

Similar to how a realtor might light a vanilla-scented candle in the home they are showing to a prospective buyer (hoping the scent triggers a memory or nostalgic emotion that leads to a sale), music can subconsciously persuade a customer into shopping more. In "The Effects of Music in a Retail Setting on Real and Perceived Shopping Times," Richard Yalch, a professor of marketing, and Eric Spangenberg explain that smell and sound are both examples of "atmospherics." The deft usage of color and decor can "stimulate perceptual and emotional responses in consumers," and can "affect their behavior."

However, there appears to be a delineation between reactions to smells and sound in terms of preference and results; while pleasant smells can convince a homebuyer into signing a lease, Yalch and Spangenberg's analysis showed that enjoyable or "familiar" music in a store seemed to have the opposite effect. 

"Analyses revealed that individuals reported themselves as shopping longer when exposed to familiar music," Yalch and Spangenberg write, "but actually shopped longer when exposed to unfamiliar music." Either way, whether directly or indirectly, music plays an active role in atmospherics.

5. Music can make you fat ... or return to work with indigestion.

In "The Effect of Music on Eating Behavior," Thomas Roballey, et al., studied how eating behaviors could be affected by the type of music a restaurant played by observing a campus cafeteria during lunch hour. Their observations showed that upbeat and up-tempo music increased the number of bites a person took of their meal, whereas their theory of downtempo music decreasing the number of bites did not hold weight. A possible explanation of this distinction is that fast-paced music was a more effective stimulant, serving as an "arousal function." 

Another facet of their experiment included surveying whether participants were aware of any music playing in the background while they ate. "If a subject is unaware of a physiologic state caused by a stimulus," they write, "the subject may also be unaware of the stimulus." The results of their questionnaire showed that the majority of the test subjects "did not consciously perceive the music."