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Discoveries on the Biological influence of Music

One of the most interesting opportunities available to college students, in my opinion, is the ability to conduct substantive and professional research. Students can join professors on research projects they are conducting, or simply start a project on their own based on their personal interests. Most competitive schools offer top-tier research opportunities, providing funding, resources, space, and mentorship to conduct research. Many commonly-researched topics are in the STEM fields, but many also address topics in the humanities. Although not yet in college, this summer, I engaged in a research project that takes a scientific view on a topic I love to investigate: music. I conducted a narrative literature review on the experience of music perception, synthesizing the physiological, psychological, and neural responses of music on an audience member. To learn more about it, here is the abstract of my paper:

Music allows artists to express and connect themselves with broad and diverse audiences. Certain musical choices can greatly impact the amount of influence the artists’ message has on an audience. To best share messages through a musical work, it can be beneficial for an artist to understand the biological processes with which the audience may experience the perception of music. The physiological, psychological, and neural responses represent the bodily effects of music and are thus informative to study in relation to the individual experience of a musical work on an individual. This paper will review the biological view of music and create a narrative to show how physiology, psychology, and neurology can be applied to influence a social or individual atmosphere toward an artist's desired message. After synthesizing the biological effects of musical feature changes (such as tempo, rhythm, volume, pleasantness, structure, music type, emotions, and audience type) this paper will make three conclusions relating to the intersection of physiology, neurology, and psychology. First, the ability to prefer or expect a musical change or feature can have a large emotional impact. Second, the arguably most important musical emotion of empathy can likely be created through rhythmic features of tempo and synchronization. Third, peak musical experiences are emotionally arousing and largely influenced by musical structure and audience setting.

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Given the experiences I’ve had in theatre, music production, and vocalizing, I can provide personal context to how impactful certain elements of a musical work can be due to biological responses. An especially well-written musical work that illustrates this is Les Misérables, which I had the opportunity to perform in this past year as Jean Valjean. The song “Bring Him Home” performed in the middle of the show demonstrates each of the main discussion points of my paper very well. Empathy is created with the audience due to the musical situation the song is placed into and the informational accompiant of narrative (Jean Valjean is praying for the safety of a boy, even if it means the cost of his own life). The rhythm is also significantly slowed down and synchronized with the character's situation of being in a resting and prayer state. A peak experience is created in the middle of the song when the song, which starts very quietly to draw the audience in, gets very loud with a cymbal crash. This almost always elicits a “chill” response with the audience due to the musical structure and focus of the audience because of the narrative situation in the show. Finally, musical expectations are fulfilled in this song by ending on the resolving chord of A-major, creating a relaxing and highly emotional feeling in the audience. So, through these biological responses to the music, the message is emphasized that Jean Valjean will be there to care for and protect her daughter’s lover under all circumstances.

Les Misérables is just one example of a musical work utilizing the biological response to music in order to illustrate a message. All types of musical works involve varying physiological, neural, and psychological reactions. Through the synthesis of these biological responses to music, an artist can better understand how various factors of any musical work can affect an audience member’s experience of music perception.

In sum, I had an amazing, enriching experience conducting research on the various biological influences music has on individuals. The conclusions I drew helped me understand how certain aspects of music can be more effective than others at conveying a message. If you want to read the whole paper and discover the complete findings, download the pre-print here: I hope you enjoy it; I sure enjoyed writing it!

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