It's about midnight as I sit down to write this post. But before I begin, I have to pick the perfect playlist for a night of writing. My go-to tunes for such an occasion are usually instrumental grooves or jazz.
The mood music I select — whether for writing, a party, or a road trip — greatly affects how I experience an event. For example, if I don't have access to the right music for a long drive, I'll become tired and dislike the trip much sooner than if I had hours of the ideal songs to keep me going.
But why does music make me feel this way? What is it about having the perfect mix tape for every occasion that makes life seem more enjoyable?
Your Connection to Music Is Evolutionary
Your experience of music is deeply rooted in areas of your brain that deal with motivation, reward, and emotion.
When you hear a song, it is processed in the cerebellum and amygdala. Your brain starts synchronizing neural oscillators with the rhythm of the music, which may cause your head to bob or your foot to tap. Your rhythmic body movements are based on your brain predicting what will happen next, creating an internal structure for the song. In her TED talk, "Music on the Brain," cognitive neuroscientist Jessica Grahn demonstrates how skilled we are at listening to music. Within a few seconds, our brains can predict rhythm and identify songs, something no other animal can do.
This complex reception of music is something we do not need to be taught. We have an innate capability to predict rhythm and tone, which is a core driver for why we experience emotions while listening to music.
Why Certain Songs Give You the Chills
Our brains are wired to identify how music feels. Researchers have recognized that across cultures, major chords sound positive and upbeat to us; while we interpret minor chords as sad.
This connection between emotion and music was noted by Stephen Davies, a professor of the philosophy of music. He called this connection appearance emotionalism, meaning that music is sad in the same way that someone's slouching posture could be considered sad. A sad song is not sad because it feels sadness, but because it expresses sadness.
Talented composers can trigger your emotions by writing music in a certain key or placing unexpected moments within a song. Sometimes, composers purposely use a note to clash with the melody. This creates tension, making your brain wonder how and when the tension will resolve.
"By moving off the chord, you create dissonance; dissonance begets tension; tension begets emotional response from the listener," says Becky Sullivan, a music writer at NPR.
It's like how a good movie draws you in with suspense, making you yearn to discover how things will pan out. How will the story end? This suspense draws your attention; so when the tension is finally resolved, your emotions are that much stronger.
There's scientific backing to this emotional feeling — a study from 2011 found that when people listened to music, dopamine levels were the highest when people reported feeling a "chill."
Your Feelings Shape Your Preferences
Up until about the age of sixteen, your musical preference is largely shaped by your personal identity, your friends, and your culture. But your preferences occasionally take a backseat to your emotions when you're deciding what kind of music to listen to. You might typically listen to rap, but a sad spell might have you craving Adele.
This is because music can act as a shoulder to cry on, according to Dr. Stephen Palmer, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Palmer concluded this from a study he conducted where participants were told to think back to an emotional event in their life, like a breakup. The subjects demonstrated a preference for listening to melancholy music when thinking about a relationship ending, because sad songs can be therapeutic and are perceived as non-threatening.
"Like a sympathetic friend, music, movies, paintings, or novels that are compatible with our current mood and feelings are more appreciated when we experience broken or failing relationships," noted Palmer.
Studies have also shown that soothing music — like lullabies or nature sounds — can be effective when you feel pressure or stress.
You can use music to help you feel a certain way or change your mood. If you feel unmotivated for instance, playing an uptempo, energetic song can get you going.
How Music Helps Your Memory
There are certain songs that seem capable of triggering memories. It might be the song that was playing during your first kiss, or a track from your wedding that brings back vivid memories and shots of emotion.
How does this happen? Psychologists state that most emotional memories are the result of cued recall, meaning that anything connected to your senses can act as a cue to bring back memories of an emotional event. This is why the smell of apple pie may remind you of your mother's home cooking, or why the sound of the ocean can bring on memories of a vacation you had at the beach.
Psychologists note that music is especially powerful because it is processed by the lower, sensory levels of the brain, helping to make your connection to an emotional event even stronger. Listening to music you know stimulates the hippocampus — an area in your brain responsible for long-term memory storage. Because of this deep level of processing, psychologists note that music is practically immune to later memory distortions.
A group of researchers in New York have noticed the positive effects of music on the memory of Alzheimer patients by giving them iPods with custom playlists to help them recover memories that were supposedly lost.
Dr. Concetta Tomaino, executive director of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, has studied the therapeutic effects of music for more than 30 years. Tomaino says, "If someone loved opera or classical or jazz or religious music, or if they sang and danced when the family got together, we can recreate that music and help them relive those experiences."
There's nothing more human than the "gotta-dance" feeling you get when you hear the opening bass line of "Billie Jean," which sparks the memory of the first time you tried to moonwalk. You probably remember where you were, who you were with, and how much fun you had.
This is the impact of music. It's powerful and real.
Mikael Cho is the co-founder of ooomf, a creative marketplace connecting mobile and web projects with vetted developers and designers from around the world. Mikael writes about psychology, start-ups, and product marketing on the ooomf blog. Find him on Twitter @mikaelcho.
Illustration by Andrew Archer.