Can music change the way we think and act?

Occasionally I browse the search queries that bring people to this site, and the question in the title was one of them. It made me think a little bit more serious about this: can music really change the way we think and act? Obviously, I believe it can, because otherwise I wouldn't have written the post on Howard Shore's music. And I'm not the only one who thinks so: "Of all the fine arts, music is that which most influences the passions, and that, therefore, which a legislator should do most to encourage. A few bars of moral music, composed by a master hand cannot fail to affect the feelings, and have much more influence than a well-written book about morality, which convinces our reason without altering our habits." (Napoleon Bonaparte). So, obviously, there is some effect, but how does it work?

Music influences the way you feel, and that in turn influences the way you think and thus the way you act. For example, when you're feeling a bit down, you can put on your favourite music and presto!: you feel better and are more inclined to take on something. This is the way music is used in films, but perhaps an even better example would be corporate video and commercials, where the makers want you to act in a certain way. Using the right music greatly enhances their chances to achieve their objectives. This by the way shows why using "stock music" on corporate videos is generally a bad idea since it's generic and doesn't target the audience's emotions like specifically composed music can. Also, it often forces the editor to adapt his cuts to this generic music, which detracts from the efficiency even more.

Apart from affecting our emotions there is another way in which music effects the way we think and act that is only just beginning to be researched: the effect of music on memory, learning and even productivity. For example, this post from Dr. Ellen Weber's blog shows what effect different kinds of music have on your feelings and how that can enhance your day. This seems to be based on the release of specific enzymes in your brain. So there are many examples of how music can influence the way we think and act.

However, I do think that in order to have an effect on feelings, thoughts and actions, the music should relate to the person hearing it. If the idiom of the music is too foreign to the listener, it will fail to have an effect. Maybe that's why "contemporary classic" and avant-garde jazz do not affect the general audiences that much. The goal of that kind of music is to explore artistic boundaries, which is a different matter alltogether. But composers should be aware of this, I think, since either way it will affect feelings. Also, think about this the next time you put on some music. If you want to achieve a certain goal, you might want to put on a certain type of music! What are your thoughts?


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