Music to our ears

Music to our ears

juli 5th, 2016 Posted by communication, marketing, storytelling 1 comment

Wars have run its course accompanied by the beat of a drum, peace was made on its rhythm and that alone makes music an important part of our history. We use music to convey our feelings and messages onto others or to process those emotions ourselves. When you are responsible for learning, employee productivity, customer service or for branding your organisation, music will be an important instrument in your mix. That’s why it’s strange that most of us have no real insight into music and its exact influence on us.

When you call organisations, chances are that you will hear some type of music when put on hold. Why is that? You probably guessed it already, research has shown that we stay on hold longer when we listen to music. But what type of music ensures you that your clients will have the most patience when being put on-hold and why?

Up until now, the choice of music often depended on our personal taste and judgement. Making the assessment mostly instinctive (or something that is advised by third parties who claim to be experts). Don’t get us wrong, that is a good starting point but knowing that music plays an important role in the decision process and the final judgement of your co-workers, clients and prospects, basic knowledge about the effects of music is very valuable.

In part one of this article, we will describe what effects music has on your brain and in part two you will be able to read how you could use these effects to your advantage.

Before you are going to read more about the role music plays and how you can use it for marketing or educational purposes, it might be interesting to see what happens if you listen to a piece of music while reading this article:

Are you more capable of processing and remembering the undermentioned information while listening to Vivaldi?

What music does to our brains

The psychological impact of music, and how that affects us precisely- is yet to be determined. The field of research that faces this challenging task is the “cognitive neuroscience of music” which stands for researching cognitive processes that manifest themselves within the brain when listening to music.

Research has shown that multiple parts of our brains are activated while listening to music, each of these parts of our brains have their own effect on the final perception of a piece of music and the emotions following. Below, you will find a visual presentation of the parts of our brains that link to music:

By exposing people to music during an EEG (electroencephalogram), researchers have been able to determine with great accuracy which parts of our brain are influenced by music. For example, cheerful music results in an elevated activity in the right part of the brain (frontside), while people listening to sad music, show an increased activity in the left side op de brain (frontside). The frontal brain activity increases further when affective musical stimuli intensify. Secondly, music has the ability to intensify or dwindle our emotions in relation to specific events. The emotional impact isn’t restricted to individuals, music can create a shared mood and physical reaction for several people (groups) at the same time.

Digging deeper into our brain cells….there are seven dominant psychological mechanisms linked to music. We will give you a brief overview of them and we will later have a more in-depth discussion about several of these mechanisms:

  • Brainstem reflex
    A reflex activated by the brain when sound are detected that are unexpected, loud, dissonant or unusual. Our perceptual system constantly scans our environment to detect important changes and developments. This reflex influences our sensorial and motor functions such as heartbeat, respiration and movements.
  • Rhythmical adjustment
    A process where emotions revive by music due to a correlation between strong external musical rhythms and internal rhythms like heartbeat or movement. The internal rhythms follow the external rhythms and can even lead to alterations in mood.
  • Evaluative conditioning
    Develops when a musical stimulus occurs repeatedly in combination with a specific emotion which in turn is triggered by another stimulus, like a specific event. Due to the repetition, a connection in the brain forms itself between the musical stimulus and the emotion.
  • Emotional contamination
    Transferring the emotional expression in music to our own mood.
  • Figure of speech
    Visualising internal images (derived from memories or associations) that seem to ‘fit’ the music.
  • Personal memory
    The process in which the musical stimulus refers to a memory from the past and therefore triggers emotions that connect to these memories (honey, they are playing our song)
  • Musical expectations
    As a listener, we hold certain expectations in terms of rhythm and when music exceeds expectations, meets expectations or fails to, it will result in a certain emotion. These expectations are highly subjective and are influenced (amongst others) by musical knowledge.


A rhythm influences our responses and exists out of two interwoven processes:

  1. The observation of a rhythm and;
  2. The physical reaction to the rhythm ( brainstem reflex)

We are constantly influenced by rhythms, day and night. An example would be maintaining your heartbeat during your sleep, walk and while you are breathing. Due to our rhythmical adjustment, music has a natural influence on several – by rhythm determined- bodily processes. Our body will adapt the musical rhythm naturally and will react positively to music with strong mathematic patterns. Upbeat music will increase your heart rate, blood pressure and respiration while classical music from the baroque era will decrease them.
Our natural reaction to rhythm comes with two interesting side-effects:

Our natural reaction to rhythm comes with two interesting side-effects:

As an example, we used a musical piece of Vivaldi which originates from the before mentioned baroque era. Most of these musical pieces have a pattern of about 60 beats a minute. These 60 beats a minute activate both our left- and right side of the brain. This results in a relaxed but alert state of mind. The activation of both our cerebral hemispheres guarantees optimal learning and retention capacity (the capacity to remember and process information).

According to some scientists, learning capacity can be doubled five times by listening to music with a rhythm of about 60 beats a minute during and before studying. There has even been a scientist who proved that one could learn foreign languages with an efficiency of 90% within thirty days using this method. The scientist also demonstrated that by using music, information is stored within your active memory thus ensures you remember more information, even when you don’t do anything at all with those languages for several years.

Music and perception

Music has her effect on our perception and can influence it severely on a subconscious level. As evidenced by experiments, the key of music (spirited or low-spirited) plays a part in the way we interpret images. For instance, a neutral face will often be interpreted as happy when someone has listened to joyful music. The explanation for this phenomenon is that the internal image (the associations our brains create for music) is cross-modal, this way it is easier transmitted from one sensor system to another.

Another example is that of excessive repetition (three or four times the same melody or harmonic progression). Repetition creates a standby mode within our brain, this results in a different way of processing information. It explains why people chant during demonstrations and why repetitive music is often used to influence opinions concerning ethical issues (framing).

Music and memories

Several studies have shown a link between our memory and music. The language associations we have with musical pieces create emotions. Our brains link the music to happy (and unhappy) memories that therefore trigger matching emotions (that explains why we never seem to get rid of those Christmas songs). Studies also showed that the strongest memories connected to music stem from your second formative period ( between the age of seventeen and twenty-five).

Music and emotions

As discussed, music has a direct effect on your mood and emotions. For instance, when sad, joyful music is the way to go. It will induce a happy state while sad music will only get you down even more. Depressing music is fantastic when you want to revel in it, but not so effective in terms of positive motivation.

The most important musical elements and their effect on us are presented in our following (simplified) overview:


Next week, part two!

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Marketing and Communication Specialist at TAS - Tells a Story
Maike van Oyen is a mother, friend, sister, daughter and dedicated communications and marketing specialist on the side. She has written many articles for several websites in both Dutch and English about Corporate Communications, Marketing, Change Management and HR.

Maike loves to sink her teeth into complex projects of change and has a good knowledge of communication on a strategical, tactical and an operational level. She is trained to work in hectic environments (she manages to write blogs while also doing the housework, watching 4 misguided missiles and working for TAS at the same time). And is used to finding creative solutions for every challenge.
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[…] you still don’t know when it comes to music (that goes for us too). But if you have read our previous article, you should be able to understand how music influences our brains. This also means that it is time […]