Why does music make us feel emotional sometimes? We speak to a psychologist to find out

By junior reporter Jacqueline Wong

Music moves us in mysterious ways. To find out why this happens, we spoke with Music Psychology professor Dr Hauke Egermann

By junior reporter Jacqueline Wong |

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Most of us listen to music all the time, whether it’s on the train to school, at a party with friends, or at home in our bedrooms.

Music is able to comfort us when we’re sad, energise us when we’re feeling unmotivated, and relax us when we’re stressed.

How is it possible that a pattern of sounds can be powerful enough to flip our mood from sad to happy in a matter of seconds?

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To investigate this, Young Post interviewed Dr Hauke Egermann, a professor in Music Psychology at the University of York in Britain.

According to Egermann, there are three main theories as to why we tend to get emotional when we listen to music. Many composers are aware of these theories, and may often use them to help them create music.

The first is that humans learn to associate certain pieces of music with certain things that make them emotional.

“If [there is] a piece of music that you listen to whenever you are with your best friends, then you will have a positive emotional response to that [song],” says Egermann.

He adds: “There are also certain genres or elements that humans have learned to associate with emotional qualities.”

“When composers write music, they use certain parameters. Happy music expresses someone who is moving in a happy way, therefore composers use a higher pitch and a faster, larger movement of notes,” explains Egermann. “On the other hand, sad music tends to include a lower and slower direction of movement.

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“These expressive qualities are used in music and humans respond to each of them quite differently,” he says.

Another explanation as to why music makes humans emotional comes down to its internal structure.

If you’ve ever wondered why we can sometimes hum along to a melody we’ve never heard before, or predict how a tune will end, it’s because composers often use common musical patterns which we eventually become familiar with.

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“This creates an expectation which [can result in emotional responses]. Many times these expectations are confirmed, but music can also subvert these expectations so we won’t get bored”.

The final theory is that music elicits a reflex response that is more primitive.

“If we hear something very loud or dissonant, that might have some kind of direct impact on us, such as catching our attention,”says Egermann.

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So why do we like to listen to slow, melancholy tunes when we are feeling down? Surely we would want to listen to upbeat tunes to cheer us up. But Egermann explains that we turn to music to help us process pain, rather than mask it.

“If you look at someone going through a horrible surgery but then [tell yourself] that it will help them become healthy again, you change your perspective of the surgery.”

Similarly, sad music can have a healing impact on us later, he says. Egermann highly recommends that anyone feeling low listen to music. While there has been little research into the effectiveness of music in curing depression, Egermann believes that it can help improve our general mental state.

When asked whether certain genres work better than others, Egermann says it all depends on the listener and how they respond to different types of music: “People have a kind of intuitive understanding on how they use music.”