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The science of songs: how does music affect your body chemistry?

Research has revealed that music holds the keys to your body’s pharmacy. Photograph: Simon Frazer/SPL/Getty Images

(By John Powell | Published on May 16, 2017 for The Guardian)

Classical music makes shoppers buy more. Gentle tunes can cure insomnia. How? Writer, composer and science lecturer John Powell explains.

Like many music lovers I’ve always had a fascination with the emotional power. How can a combination of sounds make all the hairs on your arms stand on end, or make you cry? I’ve always enjoyed reading newspaper and magazine articles about the psychological effects of music, but apart from the general conclusion that “music is magical”, they rarely provide any scientific answers.

But there are answers as to why music has such power over us. Since the middle of the 20th century, music psychologists have been carrying out a wide range of fascinating research into how our brains and bodies respond to music – but most of this has been relayed to us in formal scientific language, so I thought it would be a good idea to gather together the most interesting facts and theories from this large body of work and present them in plain language for the general reader.

I spent four years gathering information for my book, Why We Love Music, reading textbooks and papers packed full with phrases like “spectral structure and harmonic syntax” and “amplitudes of transglottal airflow”. Translated into conversational English, the science – I think – is of interest to everyone who loves music (and even those few of us who don’t). For example, experiments have demonstrated that music is extremely effective at curing insomnia; that shoppers spend more money in stores playing classical music; and that communal singing helps humans to bond with each other by releasing oxytocin into our system - the same chemical we experience during sex or breast-feeding.

My main problem in preparing the book was deciding which subjects to leave out. There are lots of interesting snippets I wish I could have included but they simply didn’t fit into any of the chapters, like how rock singers only appear to be singing louder when they reach the climax of their songs. What they are actually doing is putting more emotional stress into their voices, which we pay more attention to and so they sound louder than they are.

The effect of music on our body chemistry is particularly fascinating to me. Our bodies effectively contain an internal pharmacy that dispenses various chemicals to help us deal with life’s challenges. For example, if you’re in a dangerous situation, you’ll receive a shot of adrenaline to give you energy, and if you do something which is good for you, you get a dose of serotonin (which encourages you to do the same thing again). Research has revealed that music holds the keys to your body’s pharmacy, and can promote or suppress the release of these chemicals. For example, loud and rhythmic music can increase your adrenaline levels, which will help to keep you awake during a long, boring drive. But in the case of insomnia, relaxing music can help you drop off to sleep by reducing the amount of the ‘vigilance chemical’ Noradrenaline in your system. Just half an hour of calming classical music at bedtime can help you to re-establish a healthy sleep pattern – I’d suggest lute music, like Nigel North’s Cantabile. On that note, sweet dreams!


Professors North and Hargreaves put music speakers on the top shelf of an end-of-aisle wine display in a supermarket to see if different sorts of music could influence the choices we make. The display consisted of four shelves, each of which had a French wine on one side and a German wine on the other. The wines on each shelf were matched for price and sweetness/dryness so there was a fair competition between the two countries.

Then all they had to do was change the music occasionally and monitor which wines were bought when each type of music was playing.

The results were astonishing:

With no music playing the French wine was slightly more popular than the German. However, when they played German music through the speakers the German wine sold twice as fast as the French stuff.

When they played French music the French bottles sold five times as fast as the German ones.

This implies that we are as helpless as krill in the path of a blue whale as far as marketing music is concerned. And the effect is subconscious – only one in eight of the wine buyers realised that the music had influenced their choice.

More about this book

In “Why You Love Music,” John Powell, a physicist who has also studied musical composition, offers an array of answers that mainly reflect his scientific background. He conveys some basic musical information painlessly, including tuning and scales, the construction of melodies, and elements of timbre and key. His writing is chatty and unpretentious; he is informal and down-home, at times quite funny. If you have ever felt intimidated by music and its terminology of whole and half steps, scales and chords, this book will put you at ease. – Peter Pesic, Wall Street Journal





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