Background music can put a spring in our step or a crimp in our day. But the power of music over us is not limited to us enjoying a favourite tune or marching for the door at the sound of a melody that gets on our nerves: musical sound has the power to affect us through automatic physiological responses, to the extent that we can respond emotionally to sound even when we don’t hear it. 

The noted music psychologist Patrick Juslin has suggested that our emotional reactions to music are based partly on subjective responses; on how we interpret our body’s response to the sound. Here are two examples of how music can influence our physiology and consequently have ‘hidden effects’ on how we feel. 

1) The “Darling, they are playing our song” effect 

One of the key forces behind musical responses is our own memories. Music plays a role in everyone’s life because it is present in so many celebrations and big life events, such as weddings, birthdays and religious ceremonies. The important nature of many of these events means that we attach strong emotional memories to certain pieces of music. 

Think of a favourite song for a minute, perhaps form your youth. Does it have a pleasant memory attached? Now…if I ask you to think about that memory for a minute…did you smile? 

Most people will smile while experiencing an enjoyable memory recollection. It is automatic. And one of the automatic consequences of smiling is that we feel better. In 1988 a famous study led by Fritz Strack had participants rate how funny cartoons were while holding a pencil in their teeth or their lips. The group who had the pencil in their teeth had their face artificially pulled into a smile – and the result was that they rated the cartoons as funnier than the group who were not permanently ‘smiling’. 

This study illustrates the power of a smile, even an artificial one, to improve our mood. And music has the ability to trigger smiles by stimulating our favourite life memories. So enjoying the music in our environment is more than just a simple happy response – that resulting smile can boost the rest of the day! 

2) The “Good vibrations” effect 

Humans can hear sounds in the range of 20 Hz to 20000 Hz. Sounds outside of this range are classed as infrasonic (like a dog whistle). Infrasonics are important to music because instruments often produce sound waves that we can’t hear; church organs have been using infrasonic music tones since the 15th century! 

So how do we respond to sounds below 20Hz? A fascinating experiment called ‘Infrasonic’ found that sounds below 20Hz can have a significant effect on our emotional responses to music. When infrasonic sound was played under a concert floor people experienced more chills down the spine and heightened emotional states. This experiment demonstrated how, once again, bodily responses can drive emotional reactions to music. 

Summary: When we respond to music, we are reacting to more than just a combination of sounds. If music triggers memories that make us smile, then we feel happier. If ‘soundless’ music raises the hairs on our neck, then we feel emotionally moved. These are just two examples of how music can have hidden and automatic effects on us, because we react with our body as well as our mind.