“Without music, life would be a mistake” –Friedrich Nietzsche

It’s amazing how a combination of sounds can affect the way the think, feel and act. We know that music can influence us instantly and powerfully, but we don’t understand why.

The human body is an internal drugstore full of chemicals that get released according to certain stimuli. For example, if your body senses fear or danger, you get a shot of adrenaline to give you energy and strength. When you do things that are good for you, your body produces the reward hormone, serotonin. Research shows that music holds the proverbial key to your body’s pharmacy by encouraging or suppressing the release of these chemicals. Loud and rhythmic music will increase our adrenaline levels, which in turn keeps us alert and awake. Insomniacs who need to reduce levels of noradrenaline in their system should play calming music at bedtime to help them establish a healthier sleep pattern.

Other studies have shown how we feel listening to happy vs sad music. There are two kinds of emotions we feel: those that are actively perceived and those that are felt. Perceived means we can understand the emotions behind a piece of music without actually feeling them. This is why we find sad songs enjoyable. Perceived emotion also kicks in a while listening to music because our brains know the difference between real and imaginary emotions like fear and sadness.

One surprising discovery researchers found was how loud music was the worst option when trying to work creatively. The ideal volume for a creative mind is a moderate noise level, with the most productive choice being ambient noise. The reason is that moderate noise levels increase our processing difficulty slightly, which promotes abstract thinking, leading to a higher level of creativity. In other words, when we have to struggle to process a thought mildly, our brain turns to more creative approaches. If we have to struggle too much, however, our creative thinking is weakened because we’re so overwhelmed we can’t process any information well.

Looking at whether certain types of people prefer different genres of music, a study by Heriot-Watt University tied people to their music playlists, and they came up with thirteen different personality types. Many of them overlapped with well-known introvert/extrovert findings.

Studies have shown that music also benefits us when we exercise. In 1911, an American researcher, Leonard Ayres, compared cyclists who pedaled in silence vs. ones who listened to music, and he discovered that the musical group pedaled faster. The reason music helps with our workouts is because it distracts the brain from focusing on fatigue. Music “competes” for our brain’s attention when our body realizes we’re tired and wants to stop exercising. However, this trick only works for low to moderate levels of exercise because music isn’t powerful enough to distract the brain during high-intensity exertion.