Seven ways we respond to music

Michelle James, CEO of Sing Up, explores seven ways music has a great effect on us, and why we need to continue to use it when we teach

Music is ubiquitous across all cultures and periods of human history. But, what exactly happens to our mind and body while we listen to music and how can we explain the transformative impact that it has on us?

In an educational setting when things can get hectic, it can be tricky to find the time to think about the benefits of the daily use of music. But as you sit back, (hopefully) relax for the summer holidays, listening to your favourite songs, let’s take a closer look at how music affects us.

Research and scientific investigation has identified seven ways that we respond to music. These seven ways explain why music has such a great effect on us, and why we need to continue to use it when we teach, on a daily basis.

1. Brainstem reflexes

Brainstem reflexes are involuntary responses to stimuli which arrive in our brains by way of the brainstem. These include the blink reflex, the gag reflex, the cough reflex, pupil dilation reflex. The acoustic reflex is an involuntary muscle contraction that occurs in the middle ear in response to high intensity stimuli or when you begin to speak. Our brainstems react when there are loud, sudden or dissonant noises.  This can also be seen when we listen to music; when there is a change in tempo, dynamic or style. This is an innate response, often based on fear, originating from our primal instincts.

There is some fascinating research (1) which indicates that, as listeners, our inclination towards consonant sounds – those which harmonise – isn’t necessarily something we learn. The research suggests that the structural foundations of musical pitch might result from processing performed by the central auditory system. In other words, there may be a neurobiological predisposition towards consonant, pleasant sounding pitch relationships.

At the same time, other research (2) has shown that musical training heightens auditory brainstem function, particularly during periods of life when developmental changes are underway – e.g. in early life. Musicians show heightened response features, and these responses appear to be especially evident during childhood and old age.

Interestingly, the auditory brainstem is always “on” and active, even under general anaesthesia and during sleep.

2. Contagion

When we feel music has an emotional expression, we experience the emotion rather than just perceiving it. This process is called ‘emotional contagion’. This means that not only can we hear and recognise the emotions of happiness or sadness in music and observe them, but the music actually makes us feel happy or sad. Research into the physiological responses which occur when we are feeling particular emotions, showed that the same results were also present when listening to music which engendered the same emotions. These include spontaneous facial muscle activity, skin conductance and body temperature. (3) and (4)

It is thought this occurs when music features similar acoustic patterns to emotional speech. This could be why hearing singing or taking part in singing can be so emotive. However, this is not limited to vocal music and could also involve ‘voice-like’ instruments, such as the cello or the violin. It is no coincidence that musicians are taught to think of musical phrases like spoken phrases and to perform them with similar inflections, expression and even pauses for ‘breath’; and the most effective performers do this especially well.

3. Episodic memory

Episodic memory is our memory of experiences and specific events in time. It is the memory of autobiographical events. The more you are able to relate to as you recall the memory, the more efficiently you will be able to recall the ‘episode’ in question.

Music can evoke personal memories for us, for example the music played for a first dance at a wedding or during a funeral. The range of emotions that episodic memories can produce is huge. We tend to use music as a tool to remind us of experiences and events – as the ‘soundtrack of our lives’.

We already know that music aids learning and memory recall. Our brains are hard-wired to connect music with long-term memory, particularly emotional music (5). Even for elderly people with severe dementia, music can bring about deep emotional and memory recall. Songs associated with important personal events can trigger memories of the lyrics even years later and other things our brains have connected to that music.

4. Evaluative conditioning

Evaluative conditioning concerns how we grow to like or dislike something through an association. This goes beyond simply the notion of being reminded of something we ‘didn’t like’, it is, the formation of a negative or positive attitude to something without our being aware of that happening. These positive or negative attitudes tend to be stable over time and resistant to change.

Music can induce an emotion in us because the piece has been linked with an event in our lives. For example, if a piece of music often occurs when we are happy, then the music itself will eventually evoke happiness, even if a happy interaction does not occur when the piece is being played.

5. Musical expectancy

Musical expectancy is one of the central aspects of musical perception. Our experience of music as listeners is closely tied up with how the composer establishes our expectations of what will happen next and then either fulfils them or surprises us with something different. How we experience this has a profound effect on our emotional response to the music – and often can generate the ‘chills’ that many listeners experience as pleasure or a very strong emotional response to the music.

When a feature of music differs from our expectation for the music’s development (e.g. an unexpected harmony, a new rhythmic element) the emotions felt could include a range from surprise, to awe, to disappointment or anxiety.

Cadences in particular – the chord progressions occurring at the end of phrases – set up particular expectations. The Perfect Cadence (chords V – I) sounds like the end. For this reason, when we hear chord V we often expect to hear chord I next – when we don’t, for example when the composer uses an Interrupted Cadence instead (chords V – VI) our expectations are disrupted and we are surprised.

Melodically, we are set up to expect repeated phrases, call and response phrases and sequences. We enjoy having our expectations met, and equally, sometimes we enjoy having them disrupted. (6)

6. Rhythmic entrainment

Music is an artform that exists and moves through time – unlike a painting or a sculpture. Music’s relationship with time and what that means to us is an intrinsic aspect of how we are affected by it. Most music is based on a metrical structure and as such allows the natural rhythms in the brain and the body to resonate and ‘tune into’ or come into alignment with the rhythms of the music. (7)

Mental processing of timing features in the music can trigger specific neural processes which contribute to certain emotional states. This entrainment seems to be particularly prevalent when performing music with a group, such as singing in a choir or playing in an orchestra. Each performer’s heart rate ‘locks in’ to the musical rhythm providing us with an emotional response.

7. Visual imagery

When listening to music we might conjure images (e.g. a beautiful landscape, colours or abstract shapes) in our minds. Our brains are capable of responding to these images as if they were real. Certain musical features such as repetition, predictable melodies etc. may be particularly effective in evoking this imagery.

The other way around, many conductors will use their own descriptions of visual imagery to elicit the sound, phrasing and style of playing from the orchestra that they want to achieve. And of course, film music plays to this direct correlation in our brains between music and visual imagery to enhance the experience of watching movies. (8)

Music – making music and listening to music – have been part of human existence for as long as humans have been around, as far as we can tell. Music is a powerful thing and, as it turns out, affects and benefits us in many more ways than we might realise.

How can you make the most of how we respond to music and singing in school? We’ve put together some ideas of how to get started. Start reading ‘The Singing School Handbook’ here.


Tweet ‪@michellejjames1 or @SingUpTweets to continue the conversation.

Sing Up makes transformative change happen in schools to enhance children’s development and learning through the power of singing. Developed by teachers, we have been supporting singing schools for over a decade, and today Sing Up is used by teachers around the world.

Through our award-winning digital solution, Sing Up provides you with the complete singing experience. Membership includes access to almost 1,000 songs, specially arranged for young voices. Our wide range of resources, training and songs aid you in delivering cross-curricular classroom learning and act as a foundation for music across the school.

Make a commitment to music for your pupils throughout the school year by becoming a Sing Up Member today – click here to find out more.

  1. The Role of the Auditory Brainstem in Processing Musically Relevant Pitch – Gavin M. Bidelman, 2013
  2. Musical training heightens auditory brainstem function during sensitive periods in development – Erika Skoe and Nina Kraus, 2013
  3. Patrik N. Uslin, professor of psychology at Uppsala University, Sweden, 2008
  4. Stephen Davis, University of Auckland, 2015
  5. Unforgettable film music: The role of emotion in episodic long-term memory for music – Susann, Eschrich, Thomas F. Munte, Eckart O. Altenmuller, 2008
  6. Musical Expectancy – Martin Rohrmeier, 2013
  7. Rhythmic entrainment as a mechanism for emotion induction by music – Wiebke Trost and Patrik Vuilleumier, 2013
  8. Music, visual imagery, and emotions – Tuomas Eerola, Durham University, 2017