Reason Music Has the Power to Make Us Feel Good

Music triggers powerful positive emotions via autobiographical memories.

A new neuroscience-based study has identified that if specific music evokes personal memories, these songs have the power to elicit stronger positive emotions than other stimuli, such as looking at a nostalgic picture. The goal of this study was to investigate the mechanisms by which music and photographs trigger pleasant or unpleasant emotions.

For this post, I’m going to focus on the music portion of this study; the music-based findings were more robust than pictorial stimuli in terms of triggering pleasant emotions.

Two of the primary research questions prior to the study were:

(1) Do episodic memories contribute to emotional intensity while listening to music?

(2) Are the emotions induced by music stronger if they carry personal memories? The answer to both questions was yes. The number one reason that music has the power to make someone feel good is that it triggers positive emotions based on personal memories.

For this study, Finnish researchers in the Department of Music, Art and Culture Studies at the University of Jyväskylä, led by first author Johanna Maksimainen, asked study participants to choose specific songs they’d hear while having their brain waves monitored using EEG. Interestingly, analysis of EEG data suggests front medial theta activity is linked to the memory-evoking power of music.

Regarding this study’s design: Participants were asked to bring self-selected pieces of music to the Jyväskylä research lab that fell into four categories:

  • Music that evokes pleasure which is based on your personal memories,
  • Music that evokes pleasure which is based purely on how it sounds,
  • Music that evokes unpleasantness/aversive emotions based on your personal memories, and
  • Music that evokes unpleasantness/aversive emotions based purely on how it sounds.

Most significantly, the researchers found that while upbeat music (such as dance songs) reliably boosts someone’s mood, the most potent factor for evoking powerful positive emotions and pleasure via music was linked to personal memories. Notably, the three feelings most strongly associated with pleasant valence while listening to music were joy, strength, and relaxation. As you can see in the chart from this study, music was more effective at eliciting these emotions than visual stimulus.

A few days ago, John-Manuel Andriote (author of Hot Stuff: A Brief History of Disco) published a Psychology Today post, “Boogie Your Way to Mental Health.” Andriote anecdotally corroborates the findings from the University of Jyväskylä by sharing his personal memories of how dance music can trigger powerful positive emotions. He writes, “I love to crank up the volume on Sirius radio’s Utopia dance music channel. Before long I’m tapping my fingers and feet, my mood brightening with each tap. Guess what? It works.” I agree.

In a 2013 post, “Why Is Dancing So Good for Your Brain?” I share personal memories of being on the dance floor in Provincetown, Massachusetts that echo the sentiment of Andriote’s piece. I wrote, “When was the last time you went out dancing? I make a habit of going to my local dance club called the Atlantic House at least once a week. I’ve been dancing to DJ David LaSalle’s music in the same spot in front of a huge speaker since 1988. Some of my friends make fun of me for ‘chasing butterflies’ and acting like a fool on the dance floor. I don’t care. I know that dancing and spontaneously trying to spin like Michael Jackson is good for my brain.”

Music-Based Memories Can Make You Feel Happy and Sad at the Same Time

One of the most eye-opening aspects of the new Finnish study on music and personal memories was their description of a phenomenon called “The Paradox of Art.” As the authors explain, “For example, sadness, that is typically experienced in the context of music—defined as a negative emotional state in psychology—may be experienced as pleasant when associations and memories are strongly involved.”

Personally, I can relate to the “paradox of art” when it comes to music that may sound happy to the general listener but is associated with immense sadness based on autobiographical memories. As an example, even though I love classic disco-era music and still listen to these songs all the time, so many of these seemingly hedonic dance songs bring tears to my eyes. For me, disco anthems of the late-1970s are associated with exuberant, carefree memories of having a blast on the dance floor with my peers; but these joyful memories are also interwoven with the tragic loss of so many of these friends in the ’80s and ’90s due to HIV-related complications.

In closing, while writing this post, I was listening to the epic 17-minute version of “MacArthur Park Suite” by Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee and disco diva, Donna Summer (1948-2012). For me, this song is Exhibit A of exactly what Maksimainen and colleagues recently identified in terms of music that brings back vivid personal memories and also evoking powerful emotions. And, as Andriote posits, dancing (or just listening) to this song feels good for my mental health. That said, this song makes me verklempt; the emotions and memories triggered by “MacArthur Park” are bittersweet.

Paradoxically, the lyrics to “MacArthur Park” make me want to rejoice but also put a lump in my throat. The late Queen of Disco sings, “I will take my life into my hands and I will use it. I will win the worship in their eyes and I will lose it. I will have the things that I desire as my passion flows like rivers through the sky. After all the love in my life. Oh, after all the loves of my life. You’ll still be the one. I’ll be thinking of you. And wondering why.” These words never fail to give me the joy and strength to try as hard as I can to make the most of my life in honour of those who are no longer here.