Vom Klang zur Emotion – Warum Musik uns bewegt Geigen Musiker:innen

From sound to emotion – Why music moves us

Music and its influence on our emotions

Music influences our emotions in many different and fascinating ways. How empty and moodless would a party, a visit to the cinema or a funeral ceremony feel without musical accompaniment? Music makes us happy and moves us to tears, we feel like moving or we get tired.

Studies show that people who have previously listened to happy music are significantly more confident about their chances of winning the lottery. Even the way we perceive colours can be influenced by music. When we listen to happy songs, we perceive colours more brightly. So it is worth taking a closer look at the influence of sound and music on us humans and our emotions.

Frau hört Musik mit Kopfhörern

How did our understanding of music develop?

Evolutionary biologists believe that our ability to perceive and process music as such probably evolved by accident. All those structures in our brain that we need to process and interpret musical information probably arose as a by-product of our language development and communication. These became increasingly complex in the course of human evolutionary history.

Music itself quickly became a form of creative expression and social interaction in all human communities. Moving rhythmically together to music strengthens the sense of togetherness and cohesion. [1]

The brain – control centre for perception and emotions

Neuronen in unserem Gehirn

Our brain is the central switching point of our existence. About 100 billion nerve cells generate all our thoughts, feelings, hopes and desires in the form of electrochemical signals. A large part of our organism is controlled from here. Emotions play an important role in our reaction to environmental influences.

According to the quartet theory, our brain has four sub-areas that are jointly responsible for the development of our emotions. Musical information is also processed in each of these areas. The sound is created in the way we perceive it and the emotions we associate with a tone or a piece of music. The signals from the auditory-emotional processing pathways reach our entire body via nerve pathways. For example, music can also influence the musculature or digestion. [2]

Where does the danger lurk? – our sense of hearing pays attention

One of the most primal functions of the sense of hearing is to warn of danger. Whereas in the past it might have been a tiger that gave itself away by cracking in the bushes, today a car in traffic poses the greater threat.

When we hear a suspicious sound, the areas of the brain responsible for it immediately try to find out whether and from where a danger could threaten. The sound is classified within fractions of a second on the basis of our experiences but also our innate instincts. If the sound is interpreted as danger, the stress reaction is set in motion. Our body adjusts itself to be ready to perform. If we hear a horn, for example, we quickly turn in the direction of the approaching car and make a great leap back to safety. [3]

The language of nature in music

Ein Vogel, Warnrufe

Most animals interpret abrupt, brief, loud noises as a sign of danger. For example, we know many species of birds and monkeys that warn each other with short sounds. Many composers use this mechanism. For example, in motivational music with a high tempo or high bpm (beats per minute). Our brain interprets the rapid succession of beats as a sign of a possible dangerous situation. This means that our body gears up to perform and act accordingly. We are now energetic enough to devote ourselves to a task with full power.

In contrast, we usually interpret slow-onset, long-lasting and quieter sounds as calming or neutral. For relaxing music, calm music without much dynamics or rhythm is therefore used. It signals to our brain that everything is fine and drowns out disturbing sounds that would otherwise put us on alert. In this context, one could also speak of a kind of natural silence that lets us relax. You can find out more in our guide In silence lies strength – relaxation and meditation. Many natural sounds such as birdsong or pattering rain also have a relaxing effect. In the sonamedic app you will find all these effects in atmospheric sound journeys for relaxation and stress relief. Download the sonamedic app now for free from the App Store or Google Play. [4]

Music imitates emotions in our voice

Junge, Stimme, Emotionen

Western music in particular is oriented towards the emotional expression of the human voice in the way it is intoned. If we are in a good mood, our voice goes up and down and we speak quickly. If, on the other hand, we are depressed, we speak more slowly and our voice sounds darker. Not only do we recognise the mood of another person, we also let ourselves be infected by it. This phenomenon is known as emotional resonance.

When we listen to music, we experience exactly the same effect. We can let ourselves be infected by the emotions that are transported in the music and influence our mood in a targeted way through skilful song selection. In this way, we can also counteract a low mood or even a depressive mood. But beware: we often choose music that suits our current mood. Here we run the risk of amplifying our negative emotions at the wrong moment. [5]

Is our musical taste learned?


As we all know, musical taste is a matter of debate. We also often have problems establishing an emotional connection to the music of foreign cultures. But how do we decide which music we like in the end and whether we prefer to listen to classical, metal, hip-hop or pop?

Our ability to understand and emotionally experience certain pieces of music is to a large extent rehearsed. From early childhood, we learn the structure of our society’s music, its musical grammar. Much like we learn to speak the language of our culture. [6]

Musik aus Jugendzeiten gefällt uns ein ganzes Leben

Researchers have found that individual music preferences develop particularly strongly during puberty. Girls develop their musical preferences around the age of 13, boys on average one year later. So we like some songs so much because we have listened to them often in a certain phase of our lives.

Due to the restructuring of their brain, adolescents experience emotions particularly intensively during this phase of life. Thus, the neuronal reward system is also particularly strongly activated by the happiness hormone dopamine. This is probably why we as adolescents build up such a strong emotional connection to certain music genres, artists and individual songs during this period. Decades later, music we listened to during this phase of life still touches us.

Of course, we can still discover new music genres for ourselves as adults. Habituation is a big factor here. The more we listen to a certain kind of music, the more we are likely to like it. [7]

What makes a hit a hit?

Sänger performt einen Hit

Composers and musicians have learned to skilfully play with the learned expectations that our brain has of music. As we have already seen, in our brain various feature detectors analyse information from the sound stream that reaches our ear.

Music is organised sound. Our brain links the different components of a song, such as rhythm, pitch and sequence of sounds, into one big whole. We build expectations based on our brain’s statistical calculations of the frequency and arrangement of song elements. When we hear a style of music particularly frequently, we learn the basic grammar of that music and begin to like it. When we hear a similar piece of music, our brain automatically makes incessant predictions about how the song might progress. [8]

We want to get surprised

A good piece of music, however, must not only have expected elements in its composition. It needs to contain the perfect mixture of the known and the unexpected in the right place. Constantly, such a song builds up expectations and manipulates them to specifically surprise us at some points.  [9]


[1] Daniel Levitin: This is your Brain on Music, 2006, Seite 104.
[2] Stefan Kölsch: Die Macht der Musik, Spektrum der Wissenschaft, Gehirn und Geist, 03/2021.
[3] Daniel Levitin: This is your Brain on Music, 2006, Seite 89.
[4] Daniel Levitin: This is your Brain on Music, 2006, Seite 90.
[5] Stefan Kölsch: Die Macht der Musik, Spektrum der Wissenschaft, Gehirn und Geist, 03/2021.
[6] Daniel Levitin: This is your Brain on Music, 2006, Seite 126.
[7] Stefan Kölsch: Die Macht der Musik, Spektrum der Wissenschaft, Gehirn und Geist, 03/2021.
[8] Daniel Levitin: This is your Brain on Music, 2006, Seite 107.
[9] Daniel Levitin: This is your Brain on Music, 2006, Seite 112.




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