How Music Impacts Us Emotionally: From Good Cinema to Daily Life

“Music is an outburst of the soul.” ― Frederick Delius

Image provided by Canva

I am willing to bet you can probably recall a time that music profoundly shaped a moment for you, a moment you can recall at right this second.

“Music affects us in ways that are personal and require psychological explanation: music energizes, surprises, soothes, delights, and otherwise shapes our emotional states,” 
―William Forde Thompson, The Aesthetic Mind.

Several factors can change our emotional reactions to music. Psychologically speaking, such factors include volume, tempo, pitch height and dissonance, among others. A study conducted by Dr. Karen Hevnar in the 1930s revealed the emotional perception of the same classical pieces of music played at faster and slower tempos.

The results were what you might already inherently guess: slower tempos were perceived with adjectives relating to lower energy (serene, sad, tender, calm or dreamy) while the same pieces played at a faster tempo were described with adjectives relating to higher energy (joyous, happy, restless or exciting).

We experience this in thriller, horror and dramatic films when a faster tempo indicates growing suspense: our heart rate might speed up or our minds might perceive impending doom, fear or nervousness.

For example, in my short film Fate (2017), you can see in this clip where Alec threatens Helena, and you know something suspenseful is coming because the music builds up abruptly.

I spent a lot of time working with an audio engineer to build out the score for the film and was extremely lucky to have found someone to make it from scratch and be patient through my many revisions from not only my standpoint, but my Executive Producer’s. I knew how tedious the process would be, but I needed each scene and subsequent moment to illicit the correct emotional responses from the audience. I’m still grateful to both my EP and the Composer for letting me take my time with that process.

We know from some of our favorite films that music plays a huge role in our emotions: think about a heartbreaking scene or romantic moment where those characters you’ve been longing to get together finally do. Think about how many weddings you’ve been to where people have used A Thousand Years by Christina Perri as their wedding song since Edward and Bella got married in Twilight. The same can be said of the opposite: you almost can’t talk about Mission Impossible or James Bond without hearing that higher-tempo, action-packed theme music in your head.

Beyond cinema, music affects our emotions in our everyday lives. For instance, a guilty pleasure of mine that makes me feel fearless and able to conquer the world is Demi Lovato’s Sorry Not Sorry. My coworkers used to make fun of me for listening to it, but it makes me feel as if I’m living this life and everyone can get on board or step aside. I feel confident and powerful.

Speaking of powerful, I once had a friend who was an extremely talented artist (she was on a recent season of a reality music competition and was knocked out right before the top ten, and her career has skyrocketed from there). She told me that someone interviewed her once and mentioned that she was intense. I had chatted with her quite a bit about her music prior to being on the show and afterwards worked with her on a music video, and honestly, I can see why the person interviewing her called her intense, though it might have been the wrong word choice to my friend.

She has a powerful connection to music—the producers of the show recognized that and asked her to continue with emotionally-charged songs. After working with her on the music video, I not only watched her perform but was part of the performance myself, and I could feel the emotional, compelling energy that was emanating through her. It inspired me to be more vulnerable in my acting career.

“Music exists only in the moment of its performance.” ―The Aesthetic Mind.

If this is the case, then every performance of a musical piece is a new form of its reality. Each time you hear a song, a note, a chord or even music in its most basic form—a vibration—is it a new experience?

We all have a constant mental imagery going on–a life film inside of our minds playing out every second of the day. So next time you’re listening to a song that you’ve previously listened to, take note of what you’re thinking about and seeing in your mind. Is it different from what you thought about the last time you listened to it? How is the music affecting your mental state? Your mood?

When talking to my younger brother about this concept on the phone, he shared with me a funny story:

I was sitting in the library studying for finals and I put on some Hans Zimmer, because I knew I could count on it to help me think but the lyrics wouldn’t distract me too much. After a long while, I started realizing that my heart was beating really fast and I was feeling anxious. I started wondering if I had drank too much caffeine but it turns out that the music became really intense and had impacted me physically without even knowing it.

This is why music is a truly remarkable part of our everyday lives. It can make us feel a certain way before we recognize it. I bet if you ask any musician friend of yours if they feel the same every time they perform the same piece, the answer is no. Each time is a new experience.

A few years ago, a PHD student at USC conducted an interesting study that shows scientific evidence that some people have an even higher emotional connection to music: if you’ve ever felt ‘goosebumps’ or ‘shivers’ when you hear a certain piece of music, then you probably have a “higher volume of fibers that connect [your] auditory cortex to the areas associated with emotional processing.”

“Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends.” ― Alphonse de Lamartine

I asked some friends to express a moment that a song/artist/music affected them and here’s what they had to say:

“The first time I saw Gryffin, I heard him play this song called ‘Surprise Yourself’ by Jack Garratt. The song is about stepping out of your comfort zone, taking risks and going against the status quo, standing up for your beliefs. The lyrics have stuck with me since the first time I ever heard them. It’s hard to describe the feeling of your entire body becoming weightless in the middle of a concert, but it’s the most extraordinary experience. ‘Speak and open up your mind/it’s something you should do all the time/Keep exploring, seek and find/You know, you might surprise yourself.’ ” ―Maddy Kay Snader

“'Decisions' by Borgore helped me get over one of my exes. That tune just made me feel so upbeat and positive.” ―Enrique Kiko Mejorada III

“Not really a song but whenever I’m hurting or just being negative toward myself, I always put on reggae music because it helps me stay positive. The Hip Abduction and Rebelution speaks truth to me and helps me get out of my funk.” ―Morgan Petri

“Last year I was in a rough situation where I felt like I was fighting against impossible odds and I ended up at the Darkening of the Sun festival. I accidentally ended up in the ‘Goddesses of the Light’ tent, where this girl was singing with her guitar. And I fell in love with the songs, so I got her CD (which is not really published anywhere!). There was one song about her writing a message to a younger version of her in the past to reassure herself that everything would be okay by using the metaphor of screaming at a bear. That song somehow still comforts me to this day and I’ve listened to it countless times.” ―Ilia M.

And with those stories, I leave you with this last thought: music unifies us in humanity. It reminds us that we all have a soul and are connected through universal vibrations.

“Music is the great uniter. An incredible force. Something that people who differ on everything and anything else can have in common. ―Sarah Dessen

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