The Psychological Effects of Music

By Written: Fall 1999

Note: When I wrote this paper, I was a sophomore at Southwestern Adventist University and had recently been exposed for the first time to more contemporary music. I didn't appreciate it, and I approached my research with less than an open mind. I found very little published information on this subject, so for my central argument I relied heavily—almost exclusively—on the book by Torres and Torres (see below for the full citation). I'm not convinced of its reliability, and anyway, using only one major source doesn't make for a very firm conclusion. (My other sources are mostly there to get the number of sources my teacher required.) Thus, I believe my conclusions, correct or not, have no valid basis. I haven't done any more recent study on this subject, but I suspect that my conclusions are incorrect, or at least imbalanced. Nevertheless, I'm keeping this paper here for archival purposes. Hey, someone might be interested in reading a biased paper. After all, there is a shortage of biased material in the Internet, right? ;-)

Carl sat in church mesmerized by the music. To those around him, he seemed to be in a different world. Was he under the influence of music? Was the music controlling him? Understanding whether it is possible to be controlled by music is essential to grasping the psychological effects music brings about. If music can be controlling, understanding it is of the utmost importance.


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A sound of a certain, definite frequency is called a pitch. Melody is the main part of a composition, made up of successive pitches. It is the part of the music that is remembered most specifically. When pitches are played simultaneously in an organized manner, they create harmony. Rhythm is the pattern of emphases or stresses that occurs in music. Doroftei (1998) notes that “sometimes rhythm can be imposed without melody, but the reverse cannot be done” (p. 2). The rate of speed at which a piece of music is played is called tempo.

Diagram of a staff
Figure 1: In this example, the notes with stems pointing up are melody notes. The notes with stems pointing down are the harmony. The five horizontal lines make up the staff.

Music may be represented graphically by a staff, notes, and rests. A staff is a series of straight lines that are horizontal, parallel, and equidistant from each other. Notes are written as ovals and their connected lines whose placement on the staff indicates pitch. Periods of silence are represented by symbols called rests. Rhythm is indicated by the shape of the notes and rests. See Figure 1.

Combinations of pitches that are pleasing are called consonances, while dissonances are not pleasing. More specifically, dissonance is those combinations of pitches that seem to pull toward resolution to a more consonant combination. For a combination to be consonant, it must seem to rest there, without resolution (Randel, 1978). This definition is dependent upon Western tonal music.

Timbre, sometimes called tone color, is one of the most difficult properties of music to define. Simply stated, it is how we can tell one instrument from another, even if they are playing the same pitch.

Most music is organized into beats (regular emphases occurring throughout the whole piece or a section of it) Some beats are major (strong) and some are minor (weak). Syncopation is the holding of a note beginning on a minor beat across a major beat. Closely related is off-beat rhythm, where emphasis is placed on a beat that normally would not receive as much emphasis. In this paper, syncopation will also refer to off-beat rhythms.

General Effects of Music

Every new style of music has been greeted with suspicion by some. The Greek philosopher Plato wrote, “A change to a new type of music is something to beware of as a hazard to all of our fortunes. For the modes of music are never disturbed without upsetting of the most fundamental political and social conventions” (p. 333).

Nowhere has this suspicion of new music been more noticeable than in the church. The arrival of Jazz and its descendants, particularly Rock, beginning in the 1920s, has been a topic of heated discussion in conservative Christian churches. At first, it was shunned. Then, ever so slowly, it started gaining acceptance to the point that music today, even in most conservative churches, would seem inappropriate to those in the 1920s. The above illustrations are only a beginning to the study of the effects of music.

Element of MusicHarmonic UseDisharmonic Use
MelodyPleasing (can stand alone)Little or no melody (needs help)
TimbrePleasant and clearHarsh; dirty
HarmonyClean, harmonious chords; correct intonationCluttered; lots of dissonant chords; incorrect intonation (sloppy)
RhythmClustered about and fully sympathetic to the main beat; varietyFrequent or perpetual syncopation or polyrhythms; monotonous
TempoBetween sixty and 120 (mostly seventy to eighty) beats per minute; phrasedToo slow or too fast
WordsBiblically sound; positiveRepititious; sentimental; Biblically unsound
Table 1Elements of MusicSource: Torres and Torres. Adapted.

One study that compared two different types of music demonstrated a negative impact upon the cardiovascular system after listening to Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, which is considered disharmonic, while Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number Three had a positive effect on the listener (Melnikov, 1970). Torres and Torres apply a broad definition to harmonic and disharmonic music. See Table 1 for their definition. The next five sections will examine each element of harmonic and disharmonic music as defined by Torres and Torres.


Melody is the part of music that stands out. It makes the music memorable. Without it, something seems to be missing. Music that does not have much of a melody often lacks direction.


Consonant harmony can produce a wide variety of effects. Consonant harmony can be bright or dark, cheerful or melancholy, lyrical or disconnected, upbeat or slow. Dissonant harmony, although it sometimes can have similar effects as consonant harmony, is usually irritating, agitating, or has one of any number of other negative effects. It is important to note that individual dissonances occur in consonant harmony, as do consonances in dissonant harmony. This discussion refers to the character of the harmony as a whole.


What makes the difference between a good singer and a bad one, assuming both are able to stay on the correct pitch? One might have a clear voice, while the other’s might be harsh. The clear voice is more pleasant to listen to, while harsh sounds are agitating. They set the listener on edge.


Although words have a definite effect on the music listener, their main influence is manifested through rhythm and tempo, which will be discussed later. For now, the disharmonic use of words in music (as classified by Torres and Torres) includes meaningless phrases and excessive repetition. Words are often made meaningless by over-repetition or, particularly in religious music, irrelevance to the music or message. Words in harmonic music have easily understood meaning. They are relevant to the composition, and are not repeated excessively.

Rhythm and Tempo

Rhythm is the single most influential musical element. Tempo is very closely related. Kelly (quoted in Douglas, 1987) introduces this topic well: “Everything from the cycle of our brain waves to the pumping of our heart . . . all work [sic] in rhythms. We’re a mass of cycles piled one on top of another, so we’re clearly organized both to generate and respond to rhythmic phenomena” (p. 42) Douglas says in the same article that everything we do, from conversation to bodily functions, is controlled by rhythm. Clarke (1999) noted that rhythm has an effect on the listeners’ judgment.

Rhythm and tempo have a strong physiological influence on the body. Melkinov (1970) writes that a certain composition of Domenico Modugnio, which has a fast tempo, raised the heart rate of the subjects in an experiment by 4.7 beats per minute. It is a commonly acknowledged fact that many people listen to music, especially rock and its related styles, for the “beat”; in other words, they listen to it for its rhythm and tempo (Wright, 1999). Obviously, then, they are very influential.

Rhythm is also responded to by the listener. Gabrielsson (1982) places the responses into three categories: experiential (“various perceptual, cognitive, and emotional variables” [p. 160]), behavioral (actions performed as a result of the rhythm), and physiological. “In a real life situation,” he writes, “the responding person is usually not aware of the different components of his rhythm response” (p. 160). More specifically, affected individuals are rarely aware of all of their responses, such as changes in heart rate or respiration, or even toe tapping. They can become aware if they think about it. But then, according to Torres and Torres, their responses are usually different.

Rhythm and tempo, used harmonically, are sympathetic to the body. The tempo should usually correspond to the normal human heart rate range of approximately sixty to 120 beats per minute, with most music between seventy and eighty beats per minute (Torres & Torres). The rhythm should not detract from the main beat, and there should be rhythmic variety.

Disharmonic rhythm and tempo are destructive to the body. Disharmonic tempo is outside the range of sixty to 120 beats per minute. Disharmonic rhythm often includes frequent syncopation (as does almost all current popular music, and a lot of twentieth-century art [sometimes called Classical] music). Monotonous rhythm (the same rhythm repeated many times) is also disharmonic.

Overall Psychological Effect of Harmonic and Disharmonic Music

Torres and Torres discuss a study by G. M. Schreckenberg and H. H. Bird (1988) on mice that demonstrates the widespread effects of music. At birth, 36 mice were divided into three groups: harmonic, disharmonic, and a control group. Around the clock, the harmonic group was exposed to harmonic music (see Table 1) at eighty to 85 decibels, the disharmonic group was exposed to disharmonic music at eighty to 85 decibels, and the control group was kept in a relatively quiet environment at 75 decibels. Two months into the study, four mice from each group were killed and preserved for later study. The remaining mice were given three weeks of maze training followed by three weeks of rest during which no training took place. After the rest period, they were tested for another three weeks to determine how much they remembered, then they, too, were killed and their brains were studied along with the previous twelve mice’s brains. The results (outlined in Table 2) demonstrate that “disharmonic music causes 1) brain nerve damage and 2) behavior degradation” (p. 27).

Harmonic GroupDisharmonic GroupControl Group
No significant differences between this group and the control groupExcess branching of the neuronal dendrites; Significant increases in messenger ribonucleic acid; Significant decreases in learning retention or memory; Hyperactivity; Aggression (including cannibalism); Lethargy and inattentivenessNo significant differences between this group and the harmonic group
Table 2Results of the Study By Schreckenberg and BirdSource: Torres and Torres. Adapted.

Several forms of disharmonic music, Rock being one of them, seem to be addictive. In an interview, Schram (1999), an avid popular music listener, said that he is depressed if he goes too long without his preferred style of music. Numerous others have reported this same phenomenon. However, they deny being negatively affected. The “withdrawal” symptoms, such as depression, are probably due largely to the heightened state of arousal caused by the rhythm and tempo of disharmonic music. When some people have changed from disharmonic music to harmonic music, they report feeling better overall after initial withdrawal symptoms.

It is also interesting to note that it is possible to minimize the negative effect that disharmonic music has, but only while consciously listening critically to the music and forcing it into the conscious mind (Torres & Torres).


Music has a very strong, very definite physiological and psychological effect on people. Disharmonic music causes a number of negative behaviors, although according to Torres and Torres those affected are often “the last to realize it” (p. 23). But the good news is that everyone can choose what music they listen to. All it requires is a basic understanding of harmonic and disharmonic music.


Clarke, E. F. (1999). Rhythm and timing in music. In D. Deutsch (ed.), The psychology of music (2nd ed.) (pp. 473-500). San Diego: Academic Press.

Doroftei, M. (1998). Music theory made clear. Unpublished.

Douglas, C. (1987, November). The beat goes on. Psychology Today, 37-42.

Gabrielsson, A. (1982). Perception and performance of musical rhythm. In M. Clynes (ed.), Music, mind, and brain: The neuropsychology of music (pp. 159-69). New York: Putnam.

Melnikov, L. (1970). USSR: Music and medicine. Music Journal, XXVIII(9A), 18.

Plato (1963). The republic (P. Shorey, Trans.) (Vol. 1). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Randel, D. M. (1978). Harvard concise dictionary of music. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

Schram, K. B. (1999). Interview by author.

Torres, C. A. & Torres, L. R. (undated). Notes on music. St. Maries, ID: LMN Publishing International.

Wright, J. D. (1999). Interview by author.