Music transforms us. It shifts our mood, offers perspective, helps us feel understood and connected to the world. Beneath the magic of music there are psychological mechanisms at play that explain how it does what it does for us. We asked Tan-Chyuan Chin, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne to help break it down.
Tan is a wellbeing scientist trained in music psychology. “I’m passionate about understanding ways to help and support people to thrive in life,” says Tan. “And music is a powerful tool that we all can have in our lives to be able to help us achieve the outcomes that we would like.”
So Tan, why is music so powerful?
Music is really powerful because of its capacity to actually evoke emotions, and emotion is linked with memories and all of your life experiences and, therefore, music has a very strong influence on different aspects of our life. In particular, apart from meeting emotional needs, it is also very much described as a ‘social glue’. So how you relate to other people, how you use that to create the atmosphere that you want in social settings.
How does music affect our minds?
Music affects each one of us quite differently. But generally, there are some underlying mechanisms in terms of how we can kind of be in sync with the music that we choose. So you may be aware of how some athletes listen to music just before they go into competition or for artists before they go into a performance, and they have this curated playlist where it gets them into rehearsing what they are going to be doing through either mental imagery. Those are techniques that sports psychologists use to help athletes improve their performance.
What’s ‘The Mozart Effect?’ and is it for real?
That can be attributed to this piece of research that was published in Nature many years ago. It’s called the Mozart Effect. And so what that particular study actually found was that if you did listen to music composed by Mozart, you actually performed better in the subsequent spatial task.
However, a lot of other studies have tried to replicate and see how that actually stands up. They’ve used music by Blur and other genres of music, they’ve even used a novel. So it’s reading without music. And what they did find is that if you enjoy the music of Blur, or you enjoy the novel, you are as likely to do well in the spatial task afterwards. So it’s not just the Mozart Effect. And so in a way that has kind of been debunked.
Can music be good for us? Like…for our general wellbeing?
Wellbeing is multifaceted, and we can very broadly talk about that in terms of say, subjective well-being, emotional well-being, social well-being, physical as well as psychological well-being. And therefore, within each of these domains, you can very much use music in each of those.
For example, if you wanted to improve your physical well-being and you’re out at the gym and you’re struggling after 20 minutes like I do on the treadmill, then you may put on some music just to amp up and increase your endurance. Or because you’re enjoying the music, your body is in sync with the beat and the tempo and the rhythm and all of that, that keeps you going for longer. So that’s just one example of how music could be used to improve your physical well-being.
Ok I’m in. What should I load onto my iPod?
It’s interesting because it really depends on your intention of how you’re going to use the music. So if your intention is to, for example, focus on a particular task, then you may pick a very different piece of music to when you feel really angry, and you just want to release that because it can be quite cathartic. Or you want to listen to a piece of really sad music and get that release through a very safe medium such as music is great, because it allows you to regulate your mood.
So it doesn’t affect us all the same way then?
Music doesn’t affect us all in the same way because we are very much shaped by a lot of life experiences, and there are a lot of other factors that actually do need to be considered when we talk about either music listening or someone’s experience with music. Because things like significant life events, political, cultural factors, all of that do influence how someone experiences music, and also their music preferences. So what could be calming for me could be really annoying for you.
For some people, it could well be death metal. I have friends in Finland and Norway, where heavy metal, death metal, yeah, it’s seen as beautiful.
At The Mind Room we play music to create a welcoming, safe and calming environment. So not a lot of death metal, yet. You will hear playlists curated by Bakehouse Studios, DJ MzRizk, First Nations artist Bumpy, and more. We would love to hear what music you listen to when you want to clear your mind or soothe your soul.
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Adapted from an article first published by AHM, with video interviews conducted by Sunday Gravy (previously GenC). Thanks to Tan-Chyuan Chin for sharing her insights.