Music and Emotion

Music stirs the emotions in unique ways. How does music affect us? How can we use it to accomplish our goals in life? How can God work through music in us to achieve His will?

By Mark D. Harris

Our father could never understand our taste in music. It was the 1980s, and my younger brother and I were teens. Dad was a singer and loved music, but preferred the Bobby Vinton style to the Axl Rose style. More than once he asked, “why do you listen to that trash?”, a question that every generation asks their children and grandchildren.  We were both involved in the youth group at church, and my favorite artist at the time was Keith Green. He was a talented Christian singer who was sincere about his faith, but tragically died in 1982 from a plane crash, as so many other musicians have. My brother found Ozzy Osbourne more to his taste.

I enjoyed Keith Green because I wanted to live a life like his – to be a dedicated and influential follower of Christ with a happy marriage and a large family. My favorite song was Grace by Which I Stand, which I would play over and over again in my times of greatest failure, or deepest sadness. My brother’s favorite song was Crazy Train, which seemed to capture some of the anger, and angst, of many in the 1980s youth culture. Being a novice guitar player, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the riffs in heavy metal. The counter cultural themes in Crazy Train and Run to the Hills caught my notice as well. Though I wasn’t courageous enough to admit liking heavy metal, I didn’t mind when these songs popped up on the radio or cassettes.

My musical interest in Keith Green was physical (his singing and piano skills were appealing), intellectual (he challenged listeners to live up to their creed), spiritual (he seemed sincere in his faith), and emotional (his songs made me feel good). My interest in heavy metal was physical (especially the complicated guitar riffs, which I could only envy), and emotional (they provided emotional release after a guilty pleasure). Heavy metal never made me feel good, but it did make me feel tense, which enabled relaxation once the song was done.

Using Music to Influence the Emotions of Others

Everyone is a little different, but people have recognized the link between music and emotions since Neanderthals danced to beating drums around a fire. Retail stores play music to keep shoppers in the store longer, and use songs that correspond with the goods and services they are trying to sell. Wine sellers, for example, often use classical music. Clothing stores use music that was popular during the later teen and young adult years of their target audience. Contemporary Christian music radio stations like KLOVE brand themselves as “positive and encouraging.” Movie producers use music for a variety of purposes, largely emotional, with their viewers. Composer Aaron Copland outlined five major purposes in his essay Film Music in 1940:[1]

  • Creating a more convincing atmosphere of time and place
  • Underlining psychological refinements
  • Serving as a kind of neutral background filler.
  • Building a sense of continuity. 
  • Underpinning the theatrical build-up of a scene, and rounding it off with a sense of finality. 

Major keys seem upbeat and calming, while minor keys seem downcast and tense. The minor key of country western song Ghost Riders in the Sky complements its mournful words. Dissonant notes and chords make listeners feel unsettled or incomplete. Tempos of 120-130 beats per minute (BPM) increase heart rate and blood pressure, while tempos 50-60 BPM decrease both.

Using Music to Influence Your Own Emotions

The examples above describe how people use music to influence the emotions of others, but we also use music to influence our own emotions. Athletes have used the Rocky theme, Gonna Fly Now, and Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger to inspire themselves, just as Union soldiers used Battle Cry of Freedom and Confederate troops used Roll Alabama Roll and other state songs. Lovers use music like Andy Williams’ Moon River or Ravel’s Bolero to get in the mood for their amorous adventures. The downtrodden and discouraged might listen to James Brown’s I Feel Good, Jimmy Cliff’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy, or Bette Midler’s Wind Beneath My Wings. Many medical studies demonstrate better physical and psychological health in people who listen to classical or other genres of pleasing music.

Many people associate heavy metal music (i.e. Led Zeppelin), with its focus on dominance and speed, and grunge (i.e. Nirvana), with its emphasis on anxiety and distortion, with drugs and violence. Nonetheless, some people find “happiness” in these sounds. Writing in the Atlantic in 2013, Leah Sottile argued that listening to “angry music” cleanses people by engaging emotions they don’t usually let themselves feel.[2] She cited a study in which the authors suggested that listening to angry music helps people be more successful at tasks involving conflict, and even helped them feel better afterward.

If the results of this study turn out to be reproducible, and therefore more likely to be true, it will confirm worldwide historical practice. Soldiers and athletes have “psyched themselves up” with words, drugs, and music for combat or competition for millennia. Shakespeare’s Henry V inspired his troops before Agincourt just as Herb Brooks challenged the US men’s hockey team in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. Native American warriors used psychotropic medications in religious ceremonies prior to battle, as have combatants in many other cultures.

Music invigorates. Fast tempos and loud volumes stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, raising heart rate and blood pressure in a “fight or flight” response. Dissonance stimulates the reticular activating system, the part of the brain that manages wakefulness. Fast, loud, and dissonant “angry music” may be just right for rousing people to conflict. But these effects only last briefly. The heightened energy requirements for “fight or flight” are exhausting and humans cannot maintain such an intense state of arousal for long. Recurrent, long-term exposure to “angry music” may cause chronic high blood pressure, and other health problems. If angry music calms us down, it does so because it gins us up beforehand. The letdown is relaxing, just as is the letdown after any activity, from exercise to sex.


Music is all about emotion. We influence others with it, and we influence ourselves. All types of music have their place in culture and have different effects on physiology. Depending upon what their goal is, such as love or war, people may need to hear more Bobby Vinton, or more Ozzy Osbourne. Music is considered “trash” when it doesn’t meet the felt need of the person listening to it, or the need of those seeking to influence others.

But caveat emptor. Human physiology responds better in the long term to uplifting, inspiring music. We are not created to handle dissonance and anxiety forever, or even for long. Small doses of heavy metal may be good for the soul, but large doses are poison. Iron Maiden may prepare us for battle, but Keith Green prepares us for life.

Reach the nations with music and the arts. Discover how with: The Church, the Arts, and Shaping the World for Christ.


[1], accessed 25 Feb 2018

[2], accessed 25 Feb 2018

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