Beats on the Brain: How music affects the way you move

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Whether getting glammed up for a night in town, or caked in mud in the depths of Beaverworks, for most students Freshers’ Week will involve music of some form or another. But why is it intrinsic to human nature to enjoy music, and why do most people struggle to resist nodding or tapping along to the most basic beat?

To understand this we need to observe what happens to our brain when listening to music and the psychological effects it can have on us. The advent of neuro-imaging has allowed us to view real-time images of metabolic processes as they occur in the brain whilst listening to music. Different regions release certain neurochemicals such as dopamine, the brain’s indigenous opioid associated with the feeling of pleasure.

Brain scanning technology allows us to view the parts of the brain that require blood during increased activity. Listening to music involves emotive, motoric, memory and perceptual processes amongst others. Effectively, when imaging the brain while listening to music, it lights up like a Christmas tree.

Despite being associated with pleasure, music does not always instigate enjoyable feelings. If you’re into hip hop, you will feel in no way inclined to enjoy the loudest, most sadistic death metal.

‘Music can influence the decisions we make, something marketers seek to exploit’

Researchers at Heriot-Watt University conducted the most extensive study ever linking personality attributes to musical tastes. They asked 36518 people from around the world to rate 104 musical styles, and tested them on five personality traits.

The researchers found that music taste is irrevocably linked to personality traits. For example, someone who has a preference for dance music displays attributes heavily associated with being gentle and creative, whereas classical music connoisseurs have high self-esteem and a relaxed inclination.

The emotions brought about by the tone of music can invoke feelings of nostalgia or despair, and can even influence our decisions, something marketers and composers exploit. Music is heavily utilised in industries such as advertising, and in political campaigns. For instance, D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better was used during Labour’s 1997 general election campaign.

Music can even affect how we interpret other people’s emotions. It has been found that when we look at a neutral face after listening to a song, we view the expression as either happy or sad, corresponding to the type of music we’ve heard. Infamously the original staging of Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ was so challenging for its audience it incited a riot. This demonstrates the darker side of the power that music can hold over our emotions. Hopefully this won’t happen at a Freshers’ Week club night.

As you’ll discover, music across Leeds is a big deal and the city has produced a vast array of talent, from Alt-J to DJs like Eliphino. This is no
coincidence as music can instil a sense of community and emotion associated with belonging and togetherness. Once a music scene is in place, our brain subconsciously guides us towards it, creating a burgeoning community.

We can even use an analogy between drug and music induced states in the context of neural activity. Every action we take alters our neuro-chemistry and music is no exception to this rule. Drugs amplify or mimic our natural experiences, triggering chemical systems that were designed for other processes. For example, listening to heavy metal may get us excited or agitated in the same way a stimulant would, whereas listening to smooth jazz will sooth and calm us in the manner a sedative would.

‘Someone who has a preference for dance music displays attributes heavily associated with being gentle and creative’

Music’s structure and shape can also affect our satisfaction, leaving the listener yearning to get involved. The term semantic satiation might not be familiar, but the process certainly is. When a word is repeated over and over again it seems to lose its meaning. The same effect occurs when listening to music, be it because of the recurring chorus or the dirty repetitive beats.

When listening to repetitive music, anticipating the next note, we find ourselves as active participants with the sound rather than passive observers. The active participation we experience is termed scientifically as kinesthetic empathy.

People throw their unique shapes on the dance-floor to reflect the individual melodic and rhythmic contours of the music. Humans have a fundamental and direct sensory-motor engagement with music, although it always helps if it’s the genre that tickles your fancy.

It has been proven that most adults enjoy listening to the music that they enjoyed during their adolescent years. For that reason, your time at University could shape your musical identity for the rest of your life.

Michael Owen

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