Tag Archives: music theory

Why do people listen to music?

Dear Ms. VanHandel:

My name is Mia, and I am a student at [junior high school]. I am reaching out to you because I am working on a Passion Project in English class about how music affects psychology. My Inquiry-based question is “Why do people listen to music?” I would love to learn more about music theory and how the brain processes music. My reason for contacting you is I consider you an expert on my topic.

I realize you are busy, but I would appreciate any information you can share with me. Please respond as soon as possible to my request in order that I may continue with my project. Thank you for your time and assistance in this matter.


Hi, Mia!

Your question is a REALLY big one, and not one that’s easily answered. In fact, it’s sort of THE question — why do all human groups that we know of have some form of music? Music has served a lot of different purposes for different communities: it might be for communication reasons, it might be for celebration or to increase enthusiasm or inflame emotions in warriors, or it might be used to woo a potential mate! Or, it might just be because music is enjoyable. Those are all reasons why people might listen to music. 

Since your question is SO big, it’s really hard for me to answer it, but I can recommend a very reasonably priced book that might help you out; it’s by an author named Dan Levitin, called “This is Your Brain on Music.” It’s typically available for about $8 in paperback, and is a great introduction to the discipline of music psychology, which is exactly what you say you’re interested in! It’s a very readable book, aimed at people who are asking the same types of questions that you are, so it may be a help to you.

If you’re able to narrow your question down a little bit, I may be able to help more. Good luck with your project!

-Dr. Van

Hi, Dr. VanHandel:

Thank you for responding! I suppose a more specific question would be: What parts of music can attract listeners?



That’s still a huge question! In general, we can be drawn to a number of different characteristics of music — the melody, which is the part that you can sing; the rhythm, which is how the music is organized in time; or the harmony, which is how notes work together. Not all types of music contain all three of these characteristics, though, so each one works both on its own and in conjunction with the others!

We tend to like, or be attracted to, music that we are at least kind of familiar with — not necessarily music that we know already, but music that is *similar* — in style, or a similar genre — to music that we know already. It’s because we learn how a style of music works through listening to it, and we develop an ‘expectation’ for that music — we know what’s likely to happen. 

When we don’t know much about a style of music, it can be harder to understand it, which makes it harder to like it. Think about people who like the pop music they hear on the radio, and say something like, “I don’t like _______ music” — maybe they’re saying country, maybe rap, maybe opera. It’s because they’re not as familiar with the other genre.

As before, these are really big and important questions that you’re asking, and are questions that lots of people have been working on for a while! The field of music cognition has grown a lot in the last fifteen or twenty years, and it sounds like you have a natural interest in that area. The fact that I can’t answer your question definitively shows that there’s still so much work to do, so I hope you keep your interest going and someday help us to research and answer these questions.

-Dr. Van

Dr. VanHandel:

I really appreciate your assistance so far and thank you for taking time out of your day to respond. I myself would like to work in the field of psychology when I am older and find the topic of music therapy to be quite fascinating. Our Inquiry-based questions were supposed to be broad so that we could appreciate the depths of our topics as well occupy ourselves with non-stop research. However, you have worked very hard in trying to answer my question in a way that I could understand.

If I may, I would like to ask a few more questions. I would like to know how you chose your career path and, in your expert opinion, what genre of music has provided the most contribution to modern standards of what music should be.



I was really involved in music when I was in junior high and high school, but I didn’t really want to be a music teacher in elementary, junior high, or high school. So I started college with a science major — I wanted to do genetic engineering. I realized pretty quickly that I missed music too much, and managed to get accepted to be a music major during my first year of college.

I signed up for a double major in music ed and music performance, because that’s all I thought you could do with a degree in music, and even though I wasn’t sure about teaching at the elementary/secondary level, I thought that was better than not doing music at all. But I was extremely fortunate to have some wonderful theory professors as role models, and they encouraged my interest and creativity early on and told me that music theory was an option, and that I could do research and teach college students, which sounded a lot more exciting to me. 

I was also very fortunate as I went through school to have some mentors recognize that I was also interested in psychology and language, and they encouraged me to connect the dots in the different disciplines and find a place for myself in the emerging field of music cognition.

I always say that I think I have the best job in the world — I get to learn about things for a living, and I get to get excited about a topic and learn about it, and then I get to teach other people about the things I’m excited about and get them excited about it as well. And I get to recognize and encourage creativity and interest in a growing field, just like my mentors did for me.

For your second question, “what genre of music has provided the most contribution to modern standards of what music should be,” there’s no possible way to answer that. There isn’t a “modern standard” of what music “should” be — there are lots of different types of music, and no one version of music is “standard.” In fact, I think one the hallmarks of music these days is that every genre is influencing every other genre! I know that sounds like I just don’t want to pick one, and maybe that’s a little bit true, but I honestly believe that when you consider all of the different types of music that exists — and remembering that there is music that is completely separate from the Western tradition, whether that tradition is classical, jazz, popular, rap/R&B, or what have you — there is such a global influence of all types of music that there’s no way to say that one genre has contributed the most. 

I appreciate your questions, and I’m enjoying our conversation. I hope I haven’t simplified anything too much — it’s always hard to know how in detail I can go in a response like this. Thank you for making me think about some things! 

-Dr. Van

Music and the brain

Dr. VanHandel,
I had a few questions that I was thinking of bringing up, so whenever you have the chance to look them over and answer them, that would be amazing.

1. Do different styles of music affect the brain in different ways?
     a. How so/why?
2. What studies, if any, have you conducted in your field?
     a. How did you conduct it/them?
     b. If you haven’t conducted any yourself, which have you researched and what were the overall conclusions?
3. Is there an aspect of music (tempo, meter, mode, rhythm, etc.) that most directly correlates to changes in the brain?
     a. If so, how do the effects of that aspect of music differ from other aspects?


Hi Eliza;

Here are some quick answers to your questions:

1. Do different styes of music affect the brain in different ways?
a. How so/why?

As far as I know, there isn’t any reliable evidence that different styles of music affect the brain differently in any large way. There are some studies that supposedly showed that if you listened to Mozart while you studied, you would learn the material better, or that if you listened to specific pieces of classical music that you would get smarter. Those studies have been largely disproved, though.

One thing that has been shown, though, is that cultures whose music is more complicated rhythmically — with meters like 7/8 or 11/8 — are better able to process and understand those complex rhythmic patterns. That’s probably a result of familiarity and enculturation (just hearing it more) but there’s also a chance that it has to do with changes in the brain from listening to that music.

So there isn’t a “better” type of music to listen to, or a “right” music to study to, or anything — although some studies have shown that if you’re listening to music when you study, it’s better to listen to music without words, since music with words might compete with material you’re trying to learn.

2. What studies, if any, have you conducted in your field?
a. How did you conduct it/them?
b. If you haven’t conducted any yourself, which have you researched and what were the overall conclusions?

This is a really big question, and it’s one I can’t really answer since I’ve read hundreds of studies and run dozens of studies. What I’m working on right now is trying to understand what the musical cues are for tempo. Imagine you’re given a piece of music to sing, and you’re asked to perform it, but it doesn’t have any tempo indication so you don’t know whether it’s supposed to go fast or slow. The question I’m trying to figure out right now is, how would you figure that out? You’d probably look at the music and listen to it, and make a decision based on some aspects of the music, but what aspects? Would the melody give you some hints? Would the rhythm? Would the harmony? Do all three of them work together to help you decide? Is one of them more important than the others?

So I’m running a series of experiments right now where we have people listen to different melodies and change the tempo of the melody until it “sounds right” to them. From that, we can tell what the people are reacting to, and what characteristics have the biggest effect on what tempo people choose for melodies. For example, what we’re finding is that if people hear a melody that has a lot of contour changes — if it changes direction a lot — people want those melodies to go more slowly than melodies that don’t have a lot of contour changes.

3. Is there an aspect of music (tempo, meter, mode, rhythm, etc.) that most directly correlates to changes in the brain?
a. If so, how do the effects of that aspect of music differ from other aspects?

I think this is something we’re still trying to figure out. One thing we know is that musicians tend to have an advantage in what’s called verbal working memory over non-musicians; it probably has something to do with needing to keep and rehearse information (musical phrases, melodies, etc.) in our minds as we’re performing in order to make the music make sense in terms of phrasing and structure. And we know that musicians tend to have better hand/eye coordination than non-musicians. But the question you’re asking is pretty broad, and it’s one that people are spending their entire careers on researching!

I hope this helps you a little bit! You’re asking some great questions — they’re just too big to answer in a short period of time! If you’re interested in music cognition, there’s a couple of great books I can recommend — one is “This is Your Brain on Music” by Dan Levitin, and one is “The Psychology of Music: A Very Short Introduction” by Elizabeth Margulis. Both are great resources to read about the types of research going on in the field of music psychology/cognition, and would probably give you some ideas of the types of research going on. And if it’s something you’re really interested in, look for universities that have music cognition programs!

Dr. Van

Stairway to Heaven

I found your profile on a expert finder website and I was wondering if you can help me understand something. I am a high school senior in [state] and Stairway to Heaven is my favorite song of all time and I can’t quite describe why. It is something about the way the notes and music is composed that sound so amazing to me. I was hoping you could help me understand the technical musical theory explanation of why this song is so pleasing to the brain. 
Thank you very much,


Hi Grace;
There’s a lot going on in your question, and there’s a lot going on in Stairway to Heaven — too much for me to explain all of the “technical music theory” elements of what’s going on in the song. But I can try to explain one thing about it, and that is the concept of tension and release, which works on multiple levels throughout the song.

On a small scale, think about the vocal melody for the opening line: “There’s a lady who’s sure, all that glitters is gold.” There are two notes that set the word “gold,” and the first one doesn’t belong to the chord that the rest of the instruments are playing. It is what’s called a dissonant note — it doesn’t fit, so it creates tension, and it wants to resolve to something that does fit. The resolution to the following note on the word “gold” provides that resolution, which provides a sense of release. So just on one word in the melody, we have a sense of tension and release on a very small scale. That happens over and over again throughout the song; there will be small tension moments leading to release moments.

Then, if you think about how the song builds and builds and builds over the course of the song, adding instruments and getting louder, that’s also building up tension on a bigger scale. And we eventually get the release at the end of the song. 
So the simple concept of tension and release have a lot to do with it, and that’s happening at both the small scale and large scale throughout the music. There’s obviously a lot more going on, but that’s a start to think about!

If you’re interested in this type of thing, you might enjoy a book by a friend of mine named Dan Levitin called “This is Your Brain on Music.” It has a lot of information about how we listen to music, why we like the music we do, and what’s going on in our brains when we listen to music. The book is available relatively cheap (like $8 or so) in paperback, and it’s a really fun and entertaining read. It’s a great introduction to a field called “music cognition,” which is what I do, which focuses on how we understand and process sound and music. It’s a big field, and there’s a lot of research going on, so you’re asking great questions that others are really curious about as well!

I hope this helps a little bit!
Dr. Van