Music has come a long way since the advent of the first crude instruments of our ancestors—it’s been a truly remarkable journey and has shaped cultures and changed lives. Albert Einstein emphasised the remarkable influence music can have on the human brain: “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” —this idea of seeing life as music has been shared by great thinkers for centuries. No matter what influence changes, what genre of music is popular, or what cultural effects are present at any time with music as the driving force—there is, has been, and always will be music.
This way of thinking has motivated an entire field of empirical study known as Music Psychology, with the goal of understanding how exactly we are affected by music on a daily basis, observing both our perception and response to music. From the music on our Spotify playlists to the music we hear at the shopping mall, the catchy elevator music, or the annoying “courtesy” of music we are subjected to through our phone while on hold; our brains remain hard at work processing this audio information through our sense organs, and the way we process the data is extremely interesting.
One may have the impression that music is merely something we enjoy; it is a hobby in a sense, an acquired taste. The reality of musical taste is actually unlike this entirely—there is a systematic way our brains interpret the intentional patterns of music—that happens to be almost universal regardless of the individual, which is to say, that while music is by definition an art, it is also a science.
For example, the background music of a place provides a shopper with a set of external cues, whether they are aware of it or not. Dr. Hauke Egermann, director of the York Music Psychology Group, explains how music is able to affect us emotionally and that emotional interpretation of music is a learned behavior. Through what Dr. Egermann calls “learned association” we come to understand that through the artists we listen to, the movies we watch, and the media we are surrounded by, we learn to associate certain musical patterns with certain feelings. From this we begin to accumulate a set of “musical expectations”—bits of musical information that triggers a specific emotional response. This musical expectation travels with us throughout the day, when we are doing chores at home, driving our car to work, and of course, while we are shopping.
Learned association, also known as associative learning, is defined in psychology as “when a subject creates a relationship between stimuli (auditory or visual) or behavior (auditory or visual) and the original stimulus (auditory or visual).” In its essence, learned association applies to the listener of music in the way that each auditory pattern we hear travels through a synapse elsewhere in the brain and triggers subtle emotional responses, based on what we have previously “learned” and now, in a sense, “know.”
This is in no sense conventional learning or knowledge, making it all that more interesting. It is alike the way that you clearly “know” how to breath, or to raise your hand—you must know, because you are able to perform these actions, frequently. However, you could not begin to explain in words how it is you go about doing either these things. This is the same with the emotional responses created from the auditory sensation of music—we can feel the music, our brains can even come to expect patterns from this sensation, and what happens next in the pattern affects us further still.
If we know what tone will follow what chord, and it happens, we feel at ease with the music. If we “know” what tone will follow what chord, and it doesn’t happen—we develop a sense of arousal. Either way, our brains are hard at work decoding the sensations of music and developing an idea of “how music works,” and the process of doing so, with the degree of cognitive attention involved, results in a byproduct in the form of emotional sensation. This is happening whether we choose the music or not, which is to say, at home or in public; we are always being affected by the sensation of music.