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Impact of Personal Music Use on Cognition and Emotion: Music Psychology

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 2834 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Music plays an influential part in many individuals, eliciting positive and negative experiences depending on how music is associated in their lives. Music has many complex links with the brain, relationships, individuals’ identities, cultures, health and illnesses (Rickard & McFerran, 2012, pp.xi-pp.xv). The aim of this piece is to reflect on the HUMS, how music impacts cognitive functions and emotions.

Part 1:  Healthy-Unhealthy Uses of Music Scale (HUMS) personal reflection

My experience completing the Healthy-Unhealthy Uses of Music Scale (HUMS) was quite interesting. My ‘healthy’ score obtained was much higher than expected compared to my ‘unhealthy’ score. The result obtained for the ‘healthy’ category was 25 out of a maximum score of 25. Prior to completing HUMS, I did expect my score to be high in the ‘healthy’ section because music is indeed a major factor in my life. When I was younger, music was a form of entertainment around the household. Coming from a Chinese-Cambodian background, my family and relatives love to sing and dance during family gatherings, therefore music was associated with multiple happy memories for me. As I grew up, music is also a motivational, relaxation and interactive tool. In academic circumstances, it is essential to remain focused on the tasks and have a clear mind, while attempting to not procrastinate. Sometimes listening to music while I study is a great way for me to do that because the tempo and beat of the songs encourage me to want to study more. Not only that, music makes me feel relaxed as it puts me in a space where negative feelings are disregarded and allows me to focus on the here and now. Additionally, when there is music when I am with other people, it creates a zone of connectedness around us because we can enjoy the same music. Music is a useful means to maintain and enhance my mental, physical and social wellbeing.

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As for my ‘unhealthy’ score, it was 10 out of a maximum score of 40, which was relatively low. A potential reason that may explain why my ‘unhealthy’ score was rather low could be the strong association music has with positive memories of mine. However, a question that was interesting to answer was whether listening to music made me feel bad about myself (refer to Appendix A). I like to listen to various genres of music and one of them is country music. I do feel insecure when other people know that I listen to country music because there tends to be a ridiculing response towards it. Due to the associated stigma with country music, I prefer to keep my music preferences to myself to avoid being stigmatised and made fun of. Nevertheless, the fear of being stigmatised does not prevent me from listening to music I enjoy.

Part 2: How the use of music influences cognitive function

Music engagement can have an impact on cognitive functions. Doing any music-related activity requires the use of multiple regions of the brain, while activating a variety of neutral systems (Dr. Young-Eun Claire Lee, personal communication, 9th April 2019). When engaging in music, there may be changes to the brain, in terms of its structural and functional neuroplasticity. According to Merrett & Wilson (2012, pp.120), structural neuroplasticity indicates the “macrostructural changes in the brain”, such as the “size, shape, density, and connectivity”. Whereas, functional neuroplasticity is the “changes in brain processing”, such as the “increases or decreases in activation, modification of patterns of cortical activation, or changes in the neural substrates or networks involved in a given task” (Merrett & Wilson, 2012, pp. 120). Professional musicians have become common subjects that researchers would seek for to observe how their engagement in music training impacts their brain. An extensive range of literature has come to a common conclusion that “music interacts with other cognitive functions, including memory, language, attention, and spatial reasoning” (Merrett & Wilson, 2012, pp. 121).

However, beyond these clinical observations, there are also other researchers who study how musical activity and engagement influences how well other people perform an activity. A ground-breaking research conducted by Thompson et al. (2011, pp.701) about enhancing the “understanding of the effects of background music on studying” has provided an in-depth insight into the benefits of music engagement in an academic setting. The experimental condition of the study was playing background music with varying musical tempos and intensities while the participants did a reading comprehension task (Thompson et al., 2011, pp.703).  The control condition is participants completing the assigned reading comprehension task without background music (Thompson et al., 2011, pp.704). According to the following literature’s findings, it has been indicated that listening to music that is “fast and loud” in background has a high likelihood of causing disruptions. Due to the high intensity of the music, it is difficult for participants to block out the music (Thompson et al., 2011, pp.705). Linking to this study, it is apparent that the way I listen to music while studying may have impacted on the productivity and concentration levels, because I have not been able to complete my university assessments to the best of my ability. The type of music I tend to listen to when studying is pop-music that is quite upbeat. Usually when a song I like a lot is played, I turn the volume up. However, I noticed that sometimes I do get distracted and really absorbed into the music that I forget or stop doing my work completely. What Thompson et al. (2011, pp.706) has noted in their literature is that slow or soft music has no major detrimental impact on reading comprehension. This could be taken into consideration the next time I listen to music while studying. Instead of listening to very upbeat music with fast tempos and such, I could try listening to music that is slow at a low-moderate volume and see if there is a difference in concentration levels and productivity.

Another strategy that I could use to improve my reading abilities is participate in music training, for example learning a new instrument. According to Gill and Rickard (2012, pp. 60), doing arts and music-related activities may enhance reading and mathematic abilities. Additionally, a separate study conducted by Jaschke et al. (2018, pp. 9) has demonstrated that musical activities enhance “academic achievement and executive sub-fucntions, such as inhibition and planning” measured by neuropsychological exams. Both pieces of literature allow me to understand that studying is not purely centred around motivation and goal setting. It is also about finding other strategies to help enhance the productivity and concentration, as well as other cognitive functions, for instance taking part in activities from the arts and music field.

Listening to music influences my cognitive functioning as it helps me relax and allow me fall asleep easily. As shown in a research run by Field (1999), toddlers and pre-schoolers “went to sleep faster following their exposure to classical guitar music” compared to no music due to the increase of alpha waves” (Field, 1999, pp. 67). Field (1999, pp. 67) emphasised that the increase of alpha wave activity usually illustrates a response of relaxation “in its most extreme form” as there is a large amount of alpha wave activity when a person is asleep. In this case, I believe that Field’s study can be generalised to the overall population, rather than specifically to just the assigned sample of toddlers and pre-schoolers. Similarly, the findings of this research can be applicable in my situation as I tend to fall asleep easily when listening to slow and soft music at low volume, especially when I listen to soft instrumental piano music.

Part 3: How the use of music can impact emotions

Not only can engaging in music influence cognitive functions, it can also influence emotions. According to music therapist from the University of Melbourne- Professor Katrina Skewes McFerran- Keith Roe’s study from 1987 illustrates that teenagers utilise music to display a part of themselves (McFerran, personal communication, 26th March 2019). Extrapolate this insight, music could also be used to reflect how people may feel. In my experiences, when I feel happy, I would listen to upbeat music that may perpetuate my happy state. Whereas, when I feel sad, I would likely listen to songs that are associated with sadness, for example a song about a failed relationship or heartbreak. By listening to sad music, it may be detrimental to teenagers’ mental and emotional health if their emotions negatively perpetuate into something more concerning and they are unable to bounce back from it. Emotions are “physiological changes” that focus on the object and are “directed towards their objects” (Davies, 2012, pp. 9). For example, it is very common for teenagers to be aggravated towards a person, event, situation and so forth due to their mood changes. Therefore, the music they may choose to listen to music that expresses their aggravation, such as rap music. This aligns with McFerran’s view on adolescent music which underlines that although most adolescents tend to listen to pop-music, they also listen to music that frequently expresses angst (2012, pp. 97). Juslin et al. (2014, pp. 600) further explores the impact of music on emotions by highlighting that eliciting emotions is a complex relationship between “the music, the listener, and the situation”.

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A key model that can explain the process of emotion induction is by referring to the BRECVEM framework by Juslin and Vastfjall. The first component of this framework is the brain stem reflex, whereby emotions arise as the listener makes sense of the musical signals, which urges them to react to the musical stimulus. The next part to the model is rhythmic entrainment. This refers to the musical rhythms matching with the rhythms of the body. The evaluative conditioning phase of the model is associating the music with a positive or negative stimulus. There is also the contagion stage, whereby the emotions are elicited when the listener internally mirrors the emotion expressed through the music. The visual imagery stage involves the listener painting a picture in their mind when listening to the musical stimulus. It is important to note that in this stage, the image conjured in the listener’s mind may vary. In the episodic memory phase, the music brings back a personal experience in the person’s life, for example it may serve as a reminiscing function. And finally, the musical expectancy stage of this framework involves a certain part of the music confirming, delaying or goes against the expectations the listener has for the music.

Applying the BRECVEM framework, I believe that music engagement often influences my emotions through the evaluative conditioning and episodic memory stage. An example of when evaluative conditioning has conjured emotions for me is when I went shopping and heard one of my favourite Khalid songs playing. The song became a positive association as it was the type of music that I would dance to with my friends. I find that the song enhanced my mood and made me feel more uplifted. In a way, this association could also be seen as an episodic memory, which has a significant impact on my emotions, allowing me to reflect and reminisce about the times when I felt carefree and truly happy. It is crucial to acknowledge that when engaging with music, a combination of emotions can be conjured at the same time. But, one emotion is usually more dominant in comparison to other emotions aroused at a specific point in time.

Part 4: Final reflection on how music may change during the lifespan

As I continue to live my life into my old ages, it is expected that I will encounter some unfortunate conditions as my body and mind will begin to deteriorate. My physical and mental capabilities may slowly become limited. However, I believe that this is the stage where music becomes the most important thing that could help alleviate symptoms of the deterioration on my body. As pointed out by Barber (2012, pp.254), dementia and Parkinson’s disease are the “two most prevalent brain diseases occurring in older people”. As the brain ages, there is a decline in the way the brain functions. The brain processes at a slower rate, the working memory and long-term memory begins to break down. Dementia is the process whereby “mental functions are disrupted” (Barber, 2012, pp. 255) and it remains unclear what the cause of this condition is, but it is predicted that old age may be the main cause. I believe that in the future, the music I listen to could be used as a therapeutic method to help speed up the process of recovery if I were to encounter such conditions when I become old. The symptoms of dementia may impact individuals cognitively, behaviourally and psychologically. Some of the symptoms involve the inability to “self-care”, loss of communicative skills, lack of “social engagements” and so on (Barber, 2012, pp. 256). However, I believe that the more musical involvement there is, the more benefits it can bring to me health-wise besides prescribed medication. In saying so, I hope that if I were to have children in the future, they would share the same enjoyment with music and adopt a similar healthy use for it. 


Appendix A:


Reference list:

  • Barber, J.B. (2012). Chapter 12: Music for Dementia and Parkinson’s Disease in the Elderly. In Rickard, N.S., & McFerran, K. (Eds.), Lifelong Engagement with Music: Benefits for Mental Health and Well-being (pp. 253- pp. 274). New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
  • Davies, S. (2012). Chapter 2: Emotions Expressed and Aroused by Music. In Juslin, P.N., & Sloboda, J.A. (Eds.), Handbook of Music and Emotion: Theory, Research, Applications (pp. 1-pp.37). Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online.
  • Field, T. (1999). Music Enhances Sleep in Preschool Children. Early Child Development and Care, vol. 150(1), pp. 65-pp.68. doi: 10.1080/0300443991500106.
  • Gill, A., & Rickard, N. (2012). Chapter 3: Non-musical Benefits of School-Based Music Education and Training. In Rickard, N.S., McFerran, K (Eds.), Lifelong Engagement with Music: Benefits for Mental Health and Well-being (pp. 57- pp.72). New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
  • Jaschke, A.C., Honing, H., & Scherder, E.J.A. (2018). Longitudinal Analysis of Music Education on Executive Functions in Primary School Children. Frontiers in Neuroscience, vol. 12, pp. 1-pp.11. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2018.00103.
  • Juslin, P.N., Harmat, L., & Eerola, T. (2014). What makes music emotionally significant? Exploring the underlying mechanisms. Psychology of Music, vol. 42(2), pp.599- pp.623. doi: 10.1177/0305735613484548.
  • McFerran, K. (2012). Chapter 5: Music and Adolescents. In Rickard, N.S., McFerran, K. (Eds.), Lifelong Engagement with Music: Benefits for Mental Health and Well-being (pp. 95- pp.106). New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
  • Merrett, D.L., & Wilson, S.J. (2012). Chapter 7: Music and Neural Plasticity. In Rickard, N.S., McFerran, K (Eds.), Lifelong Engagement with Music: Benefits for Mental Health and Well-being (pp. 119- pp.152). New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
  • Rickard, N.S., & McFerran, K. (2012). Introduction. In Rickard, N.S., McFerran, K (Eds.), Lifelong Engagement with Music: Benefits for Mental Health and Well-being (pp. xi- pp.xv). New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
  • Thompson, W.F., Schellenberg, E.G., & Letnic, A.K. (2011). Fast and Loud Background Music Disrupts Reading Comprehension. Society for Education, Music and Psychology Research, vol.40(6), pp.700-pp.708. doi: 10.1177/0305735611400173.


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