The Musical connection to Emotions

Mar 8, 2024, 15:36 PM by Dr. Sally Robinson

Anyone who watches dramas in movies on TV has felt strong emotions stimulated by music. The known emotional side effects are so important that even the captions may described the music as “suspenseful, sorrowful or dramatic” for the hearing impaired. The music could be a small aria of an opera or the music that stimulates horror or dread in the movie Jaws.  Since very ancient times humans have been curious about the profound effect of music on a human’s emotions.  They were asking basic questions such as ‘what is music? ‘and ‘what is the effect of music on human beings?’.  Music has been described as being able to cause emotional responses such as relaxing/stimulating or happy/sad depending on tone or pitch or rhythm. Rene Descartes observed that the same music might stimulate dancing or tears.

About 18 weeks of pregnancy the unborn baby can hear sounds like the mother’s heartbeat. By 27-29 weeks they can hear sounds outside of the body such as mother’s voice.  The ability to hear inside the womb helps your baby to start recognizing sounds they hear over and over. A newborn baby can distinguish their mother’s language from other languages.  Premature babies who have had lullabies sung to them have shown a beneficial effect on their development and shorter hospital stays.

One of the first know lullabies is about 4000 years old.  Many lullabies possess a peaceful hypnotic quality.  They have simple tones with short repetitions and long pauses between sections.  Interestingly across diverse cultures these characteristics are consistent.  Samuel Mehr, director of Harvard University’s Music Lab, which studies how music works and why it exist, says that lullabies “tend to have collections of features that make them soothing and calming”. His research found that people can hear universal traits in music, even when they are listening to songs from other cultures. 

Music’s beneficial effects on mental health have been known since ancient times.  Plato, Confucius, even King Saul, used music to help sooth stress. Military bands use music to build confidence and courage.  Shopping malls play music to keep people in their stores.  Teachers can use music to help with memorization such as learning the ABC’s. Instrumental baroque music (such as Bach or Handel) has been shown to improve attention and reasoning.  Many people find familiar music comforting and calming.  Music is so effective in reducing stress that it is used at the dentist, preoperatively or during radiation therapy to reduce stress.

Any kind of relaxing, calming music can contribute to calmer moods. Calming music combined with cognitive therapy for anxiety can be more effective than cognitive therapy alone. Music, wisely chosen, lowers stress levels but certain music particularly at high volume can increase stress. Choose music as carefully as you choose food and friends.

If you wish to find a certified music therapist go to which will take you to the American Music Therapy Association site.  Go to the left side to “Find a therapist”. Then you can “whistle a happy tune”.

by Sally Robinson, MD Clinical Professor

Keeping Kids Healthy

Published 03/2024




Also See:  

UTMB Pediatrics - Pediatric Primary Care
UTMB After Hours Urgent Care
UTMB Clear Lake Hospital - Pediatric ER & Inpatient Unit


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