On music, happiness and health. What do we know?

Antonio Estache and Victor Ginsburgh, European Center for Advanced Research in Economics and Statistics (ECARES), Université libre de Bruxelles.

1. Introduction

The question of how close the relationship is between happiness and music is not a recent one. In his The Descent of Man (1871), Charles Darwin argued that music is instrumental in producing emotions that can lead to happiness, i.e. “musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex.” According to Huron (2001), music “may contribute to group solidarity, promote altruism, increase the effectiveness of collective actions [and] coordinate group work.” This cohesive effect helps understand why it has become a cultural heritage in civilizations across the globe and why it has long been seen as “actionable”. For instance, in The Republic, Plato gives instructions as to how music should be integrated into education and that advice is still heard today in many school systems.

Music has also been linked to happiness because of its potential therapeutic value since the early days of history. According to Andsell (2004), there is evidence in Samuel I, 16, 23:  “And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.” In the Abbasid Caliphate, for instance, music was played to patients in some psychiatric hospitals.

There are many natural everyday experiences that expose the human brain to a variety of sounds: the neighbours’ dog barking, the wind in the leaves, horns in the street, etc. When can we consider that a succession of sounds becomes music? Levitin (2008) explains that any sound is made up of the same basic elements: loudness, pitch, contour, duration (or rhythm), tempo, timbre, spatial location, and reverberation. What distinguishes music from any given sound we are exposed to is simply organisation. A composer will arrange sounds so that our brain can interpret them as meter, harmony and melody. Thus, music can be defined as “an intentional auditory stimulus with organised elements”  (Kemper and Danhauser, 2005).

To show how far researchers, health professionals and others have taken our understanding of the interactions between music and happiness, this paper offers first a short review of the impact of music on the brain and basic principles of the neuroscience of music to understand how and why we react to it the way we do. Next, it summarises the evolution in techniques used to measure the impact of music on happiness. Following that, it looks at workplace and therapeutic effects. Subsequently, it offers a more cynical perspective on the links between music and happiness, its use in business and its potential role in cutting public and private health costs. Finally, some conclusions are drawn.

2. Music and the brain

Music is one of the few phenomena that taps into almost every known area of the brain and most of the neuronal subsystems, much more so than language. One cannot narrow music down to the hearing of organised sounds as it also involves memory (if we listen to a piece that we already know), language (to understand or sing the lyrics of a song), movements (tapping our foot to the rhythm, clapping, clicking our fingers). If all these mechanisms triggered by listening to music seem trivial, the way music influences our mood, as moviemakers or marketers well know, is less obvious. How is it that a certain song can make us cry and another feel joyful? There are both psychological and physiological explanations.

Blood and Zatorre (2001) show that emotional responses to music involve the same brain regions as emotional reactions associated with other stimuli. They research the field of music and emotion by observing reactions to pleasant as well as to unpleasant music (using dissonance to elicit negative reactions). Using brain-imaging techniques (PET scans) to map brain activities involved in the processing of music, they study the neural reaction to highly positive responses through what is known as “music chills” or “shivers-down-the-spine”. They find that the pattern of brain activity observed with music-induced chills is similar to the one associated with brain imaging studies on euphoria and pleasant emotions derived from cocaine use in cocaine dependent subjects.

Areas involved in these reactions to both music and cocaine are those related to reward processes (known to involve dopamine and opioid systems among other neurotransmitters, i.e. chemicals released by nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells). Listening to music is “accompanied by changes in heart rate, electromyogram activity, and respiration. As intensity of these chills increased, cerebral blood flow increases and decreases were observed in brain regions thought to be involved in reward/motivation, emotion, and arousal” (Blood and Zatorre, 2001). These are the same areas of the brain as those active in responding to rewards such as food, sex, or drugs of abuse. Emotions are, however, correlated negatively with “unpleasantness”, that is with dissonance level (Blood et al., 1999).

Salimpoor et al. (2009) confirm this relationship by examining the correlation between a subjective rating of pleasure and emotional arousal during music listening. They also argue that it explains why humans continue to repeatedly listen to music despite its (possible) lack of biological or functional value. Strongly felt emotions generated by music can be rewarding in themselves. Pleasure does express itself through physiological markers such as electrodermal activity (meant to detect “musical chills”), heart rate, respiration rate, temperature and blood pressure, all known to be reactions to emotional arousal. In other words, the biological value of music relies in its ability to trigger physiological responses to pleasure.

In a more recent paper, Salimpoor et al. (2011) provide direct evidence for endogenous dopamine release during music listening in two distinct parts of the brain: one part (the caudate) is more involved during the anticipation of emotion, and another part (the nucleus accumbens) is triggered when the subject is at the peak of his emotional response (the musical chill). The authors underline the importance of how anticipating an abstract reward such as listening to music can result in dopamine release. They suggest their findings “help to explain why music is of such high value across all human societies.”

There is also some literature on the effects of playing music. Some recent findings show that this may alter levels of dopamine and that singing releases endorphins (“feel-good hormones”), while listening does not. Dunbar et al. (2012) conclude that it is the active performance that seems to generate the endorphin, not the music itself. This explains why group singing and dancing exist in all civilizations and are often assumed to encourage bonding. 

Because music impacts the brain, it can be used to influence wellbeing and happiness.

In short, music produces reactions in a large number of regions of the brain, and increases the production of a large host of feeling good hormones and proteins, such as oxytocin (also released during orgasm), immunoglobulin (an antibody for fighting some infections, such as colds), melatonin (activates sleep), norepinephrine (a neurotransmitter), epinephrine (a heart rate regulator), serotonin (has a role in the regulation of the mood, and is today the basis for several anti-depressants). It also reduces the level of stress-inducing cortisol (Levitin, 2009).

From a more cognitive point of view, Levitin (2009) states that music initiates emotions through anticipation and surprise. Our ability to appreciate music is closely linked to the expectations we put on the succession of notes, and on composers’ decisions to meet these expectations and satisfy us or not. When exposed to music, while brain regions such as the auditory cortex extract information on pitch, loudness, and other elementary components of music, other more advanced regions (principally in the frontal cortex) undertake the prediction of what’s coming next in the music piece, by taking into account several factors: (a) what preceded in the track; (b) our memory of what will follow if we know the track; (c) what we expect if the type of music is familiar, according to our previous experience of the same type of music; (d) any additional information, such as a description of the piece we might have read in advance.

Finally, Zatorre (2003) warns us: “ignoring the affective aspects of musical experience may be a dangerous approach, because we may be missing some of the most salient aspects of human response to music.” Furthermore, “responses to music tend to be idiosyncratic and heterogeneous and depend on a variety of complex and difficult-to-control individual, socio-cultural, historical, educational, and contextual variables.”

3. Measuring the impact of music on happiness

To appreciate the relevance of music for happiness, it is important to understand what is really being measured and how. If the focus is strictly on happiness, measures often rely on surveys with simple and subjective questions. But if the focus is on more specific dimensions of happiness such as stress, physiological markers such as high blood pressure, elevated cortisol (stress hormone) levels, and heart rate can be measured precisely and are therefore more objective than answers to surveys. We now can measure better how the brain reacts to all forms of stimuli such as sounds, rhythms, or tempi. We can also complement physiological blood- or heart-related markers with brain-related emotional markers. This leads to a fully new perspective on how music can impact on emotions and hence on happiness. 

What all physiological research has demonstrated so far is that music, unlike most other arts, has a universal effect on human beings. But an important question continues to be debated. Does music elicit emotional responses in those who listen to it (the so-called emotivist theory) or does music express emotions that are recognized by listeners (the cognitivist theory)…or both? Stravinsky’s (1936) answer is clear-cut: “I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, or psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence.” Neuroscientists tend to agree with him. Their view is that music elicits or evokes emotion, rather than expressing emotion that listeners recognize in the music. New technologies (PET scanning, in particular) allow for a more precise view of what happens when our brain is exposed to music. 

4. Workplace and therapeutic effects

If music has the ability to induce positive affective mood states, one can easily assume that it would be a powerful tool to increase wellbeing in the workplace, and by extension productivity. Theories on the subject of affect in the workplace emerged in the early 1930s in the United States. In his Worker’s Emotions in Shop and Home (1932), R.B. Hersey focused on the impact on productivity and worker performance. He demonstrated a clear relationship between workers’ emotional states and their productivity. Cardinell (Music in Industry, 1948) later reviewed the role and use of music in industry during the war, and afterwards. He showed that upbeat rhythms prevented the effects of fatigue at the time of the day (late morning) at which it was the most likely to occur.

Not much progress was made on this until the 1990s with the emergence of the happy-productive worker thesis tested by Wright et al. (1993) for instance. Their research implies that individuals experiencing positive affective states (thanks to music for example) can be more creative, more helpful, better negotiators and more persistent when faced with uncertain tasks. This conclusion has been reinforced by recent results concerning the impact of music interventions on stress responses that give solid ground to its use in both medical and non-medical settings as well as to its effect on productivity and performance in working environments. 

Lai and Li (2011), for instance, investigate the effects of music preference and music intervention on both psychological and physiological indices of stress for a sample of newly employed nurses. Each nurse was exposed randomly to both the music and the control conditions (sitting in silence on a chair and at rest). The music used covered six different types (western orchestra music, piano, harp, jazz, synthesizer and Chinese traditional orchestra music), with no sudden changes in volume or rhythm, and a tempo ranging from sixty to eighty beats per minute. Participants could choose their music and rate it according to their preferences. Indicators of stress included both subjective (self-perceived) and physiological (cortisol levels, blood, heart rate, mean arterial pressure, finger temperature) measurements. Lai and Li find significant correlations between music preference and some of the physiological measures, namely heart rate, blood pressure and finger temperature. Musical intervention always shows better results than chair rest. 

Studies show that music is beneficial for health costs and worker productivity.

Haake (2011) studies the listening patterns and experience of some 300 office employees who listen to self-selected music. She finds positive effects on mood and on distraction in task performance, but also on inspiration, concentration, stress relief and managing personal space. It helps employees with engaging in and escaping from work, and in sealing themselves off from the office environment, without disturbing their colleagues.

There is also a consistent and diversified literature about the use of music therapy in medical settings. Whether music is used to diminish anxiety before an intervention or as a complementary sedative during one, the most widespread opinion is that music does help patients cope with their anxiety (e.g. Evans (2002) meta-analysis of 29 studies of hospital patients). Leardi et al. (2007) show that music therapy may improve patient care in day surgery and De Niet et al. (2009) prove that it improves the preconditions for sleep. Live music can be beneficial to premature babies according to evidence collected at 11 American hospitals (see Belluck, 2013). Parkinson's patients also seem to react positively to music, especially when it is associated to dancing (Sacks, 2007, chapter 20). Schlaug et al. (2008) suggest that music may help aphasia patients (victims of a loss of speaking expression and/or reception) who can sing to recover speaking, since it engages parts of the brain that are otherwise not engaged. Significantly positive results of music therapy are also found in improving symptoms in schizophrenia and other psychopathologies (see American Music Therapy Association, n.d.). Finally, engaging with music has been shown to increase wellbeing in general (Weinberg and Joseph, 2016). 

5. Music, happiness and… money

The long tradition of links between music and happiness in religion, philosophy, biology, and medicine has eventually spilled over into a similar interest in the business community. The use of music in marketing is proof of the relevance of music in manipulating moods. Picking the right music to play in any shopping environment is now an old art form with a simple bottom line.

The most recent evidence of business interests in the relation between music and happiness may be offered by the recent birth of neuro-marketing as a by-product of the growth of neurosciences. It is a fast growing field that internalizes and sometimes relies on the technology used in neuroscience research. As the cost of brain imaging drops, it is  increasingly seen as a cost-effective way of picking the right music to get consumers to behave in the “right” way, at least from the sellers’ perspective. This raises obvious ethical questions that are particularly relevant because the populations at risk of being manipulated and influenced include young people. This has implications for regulation since these abuses are similar to market failures.

Through music, marketing experts can manipulate buyers and influence buyers’ behaviours.

But from an ethical viewpoint, it is essential not to forget that music also offers consumption and/or fiscal benefits to society. If music therapy can indeed reduce the number of days a patient needs to stay in a hospital to recover from surgery, it also reduces medical costs quite significantly. Since health-related expenses are often, at least partially, financed by subsidies, music can have significant potential fiscal payoffs. And when these expenses are self-financed, music reduces the financial barriers to access to health care.

6. Concluding comments

This short survey was intended to give an idea of how and why music and emotion are related and are both of broad relevance for society. Music has effects on our wellbeing and hence on our happiness. Indeed, it can have an impact on many parts of our brain (on even more parts than language), which in turn releases feel-good hormones that have positive effects on our mood, happiness and on many parts of our body.

Note that listening to music is not absolutely necessary for it to impact happiness, since imagining music or rhythm can lead to comparable effects (Sacks, 2007, chapter 19). Moreover, research has also shown that the effects are not identical for all types of music: dissonant and atonal music and “music with many ‘wrong notes’ simply does not sound very good” (Zatorre, 2003); some emotions are better perceived than others; musicians are better trained at being emotive to different kinds of music than others; and, obviously, some musical enculturation is important.

More research is, however, needed, if only because technology continues to progress and change the way in which we understand how music influences key dimensions of happiness. Even if it is essential to continue looking into ways to make the most of opportunities to develop the therapeutic payoffs of music, it is just as important to reassess our understanding of the way music influences social interactions.

With recent technological changes that ease universal access to music in many societies, it is becoming more a source of individual happiness anywhere, anytime. In the short run, this may be good news if it can be used to improve health. In the long run, however, it is not unreasonable to be concerned with the likely decline of the role music had in stimulating collective happiness and bonding.

Concerts are increasingly taking on the bonding role. This may be why they now represent a major component of the revenue of the music industry. But this may not be sufficient and may simply favour cohesion and happiness within subgroups rather than the collective cohesion and happiness it once supported. This does not mean the end of relations between music and happiness. It just means a very different type of relation from the one Plato and other philosophers once envisaged. Whether this is for better or for worse is still, however, unclear.


Antonio Estache and Victor Ginsburgh, European Center for Advanced Research in Economics and Statistics (ECARES), Université libre de Bruxelles.

7. References

American Music Therapy Association (no date): «Music therapy in mental health. Evidence-based practice support»

Andsell, G. (2004): «Book review: Music as Medicine: The History of Music Therapy since Antiquity», Psychology of Music 32, 440-444.

Belluk, P. (2013): «Live music’s charms, soothing premature hearts», The New York Times, April 15.

Blood, A. and J. Zatorre (2001): «Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion», Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98, 11818-11823.

Blood, A., R. Zatorre, P. Bermudez and A. Evans (1999): «Emotional responses to pleasant and unpleasant music correlate with activity in paralimbic brain regions», Nature Neuroscience, 2, 382-387.

Cardinell, R. L. (1948): «Music in industry», in D. Schullian and M. Schoen, eds., Music and Medicine, Oxford: Henry Schuman.

De Niet, G., B. Tiemens, B. Lendemeijer and G. Hutschemaekers (2009): «Music-assisted relaxation to improve sleep quality», Journal of Advanced Nursing, 65, 1357-1364.

Dunbar, R., K. Kaskatis, I. MacDonald and V. Barra (2012): «Performance of Music Elevates Pain Threshold and Positive Affect: Implications for the Evolutionary Function of Music», Evolutionary Psychology, 10, 688-702.

Evans, D. (2002): «The effectiveness of music as an intervention for hospital patents: a systematic review», Journal of Advanced Nursing, 37, 8-18.

Haake A. (2011): «Individual music listening in workplace settings: An exploratory survey of offices in the UK», Musicae Scientiae, 15, 107-129.

Hersey R.B. (1932): Worker’s Emotions in Shop and Home, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Huron, D. (2001): «Is music an evolutionary adaptation?», Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 930, 43-61.

Kemper, K. and S. Danhauser (2005): «Music as therapy», Southern Medical Journal, 98, 282-288.

Lai H. and Li Y. (2011): «The effect of music on biochemical markers and self-perceived stress among first-line nurses: a randomized controlled trial», Journal of Advanced Nursing, 67, 2414-2424.

Leardi, S., R. Pietroletti, G. Angeloni, S. Necozione, G. Ranalletta and B. Del Gusto (2007): «Randomized clinical trial examining the effect of music therapy in stress response to day surgery», British Journal of Surgery, 94, 943-947.

Levitin D. (2008): This Is Your Brain in Music, London: Atlantic Books.

Levitin D. (2009): The World in Six Songs, New York: Plume.

Sacks O. (2007): Musicophilia, New York: Knopf.

Salimpoor V., M. Benovoy, G. Longo, J. Cooprestock and R. Zatorre (2009): «The rewarding aspects of music listening are related to degree of emotional arousal», PLoS One, 4, 7487-7499.

Salimpoor V., M. Benovoy, K. Larcher, A. Dagher and R. Zatorre (2011): «Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music», Nature Neuroscience, 14, 257-262.

Schlaug, G, S. Marchina and A. Norton (2008): «From singing to speaking: Why patients with Broca’s aphasia can sing and how that may lead to recovery of expressive language functions», Music Perception, 25, 315-323.

Stravinsky, I. (1936): An Autobiography, London: Calder and Boyars.

Weinberg, M. and D. Joseph (2016): «If you’re happy and you know it: Music engagement and subjective wellbeing», Psychology of Music  

Wright T., D. Bonett and D. Sweeney (1993): «Mental health and work performance: Results of a longitudinal field study», Journal of Occupational Psychology, 66, 277-284.

Zatorre, R. (2003): «Music and the brain», Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 999, 4-14. 



Antonio Estache and Victor Ginsburgh, European Center for Advanced Research in Economics and Statistics (ECARES), Université libre de Bruxelles.



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