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Music can change (the way we see) the world

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Pick Wisely

When I was fourteen years old, I broke up with my first love. The colors of the world seemed to fade, my head hung low and I played the song “November Rain” by Guns N Roses all day long on my gigantic stereo. The solemn smooth violins and soulful guitar riffs struck the right chord in my broken heart and somehow I found comfort in singing the blues. However, I might have been doing myself a disservice. Sure, the melodies gave me some solace and brought a bit of peace to my aching heart but could it also have been tainting my view of things?

What about you? Do you look at the world through rose colored glasses or want it painted black?

The way you perceive things may be influenced by your playlist. Last year researchers in the Netherlands found that the music one listens to can temporarily change a person’s visual perception and affect what they think they see.

In this study, 43 young adults were asked to look at a computer screen and perform a visual detection task.  Multiple faint, visual stimuli of either happy or sad faces were presented one at a time in a visually noisy, gray background. Experimenters told the participants to indicate whether they saw a happy or a sad face and to not respond if they were not absolutely certain of what they saw. They also had the subjects listen to either happy or sad music while doing this visual detection task.

Singing Siren

Each subject came prepared with 30 minutes of their own music, 15 minutes of tunes that they found to be happy and 15 minutes that they found to be sad. Since they were given the freedom to pick their own favorite tunes, the diversity of music in the study varied greatly with everything from Mozart to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ song “Under the Bridge.” The moods of the participants were assessed before and after each trial using a standard non-verbal assessment method.

Researchers found that people were best at detecting the mood of the face congruent with the mood of the music they were listening to at the time. In other words, people were most accurate at correctly detecting happy faces when listening to happy music and most accurate at detecting sad faces when listening to sad music.

Even more intriguing was the fact that people gave a lot of false positive responses correlating to the mood of the music of which they were listening. When a stimulus face was not presented, only visual noise, people thought they saw sad faces while listening to sad music and happy faces while listening to happy music when really there was nothing there. This suggests that visual perception is influenced not just by our experience and expectations alone but also by our current state of emotions or mood and it may be altered by our music.

Sun and the City

Could sad music be perpetuating our sullen views and upbeat tunes optimizing our optimistic outlook? And if so, why does it hurt so good to listen to sad music?

Well, as it turns out the combinations of musical notes themselves might be causing us to want more and hit repeat. Michaeleen Doucleff wrote an article for Wall Street Journal online entitled ‘Anatomy of a Tear-Jerker’ which attempts to dissect the science and studies behind why we crave happy and sad music and why we find each pleasing.

So, just in case the premise that music alters our visual perception proves true in future studies and in more real world situations the next time you hit PLAY, choose wisely. Your selection just might make the difference between whether you see yourself walking on sunshine or want to see the sun blotted out of the sky.

Photo Credits: Pick wisely, Singing Siren, Sun and the City by Frank Padrone of Full Circle Photography

References:

Doucleff, M. “Anatomy of a Tear-Jerker; Why Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ makes Everyone Cry.” The Wall Street Journal Online. 11 Feb 2012. Web. Accessed: 29 Feb 2012.

Jolij J and Meurs M. Music alters visual perception. PLoS One. 2011; 6(4): e18861. Published online 2011 April 21. Web. Accessed: 23 Feb 2012. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0018861

Schultz, Michael. Seeing Music? What musicians need to know about vision. Empirical Musicology Review. 2008; 3(3): 83-108 http://hdl.handle.net/1811/34098

Cheryl Murphy About the Author: Cheryl G. Murphy is an optometrist and freelance science writer living and working in New York State. She began writing about vision science on her blog,Science Hidden in Plain Sight, in 2008. Links to her previous contributions to Scientific American’s guest blog can be found here. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter. Follow on Twitter @murphyod.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 4 Comments

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  1. 1. weltschmerz 6:34 pm 03/1/2012

    Happy music is very boring.

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  2. 2. marclevesque 6:43 pm 03/1/2012

    “Could sad music be perpetuating our sullen views and upbeat tunes optimising our optimistic outlook?”

    Could sad music be perpetuating our sad views and happy music be perpetuating our happy views

    Could sad music help us express our sad feelings and happy music help us express our happy feelings

    “And if so, why does it hurt so good to listen to sad music?”

    Assuming the world is rife with happy and sad situations, it makes sense happiness and sadness are part of us, so it makes sense, and feels good, at least from time to time, to express and acknowledge both.

    So, maybe a sad song can “hurt so good” because feelings of sadness hold more stigma than feelings of happiness, and because it’s a group expression of feelings, our feelings of sadness in concert with the feelings of sadness from the song, the stigma of sadness lifts –giving us an extra sense of personal validation.

    And maybe it could be for a lot of other reasons too :)

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  3. 3. murphyod 8:38 pm 03/1/2012

    @weltschmerz- I know what you mean. :) I am not saying we should all start listening to “Mmm-Bop.” ;) But a little variety is probably best.

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  4. 4. murphyod 8:41 pm 03/1/2012

    @marclevesque Excellent explanations! I think you are very right. It was just interesting to see how in this experiment subject’s accuracy was manipulated by what type of music they were listening to. The part that I find the most surprising is the false positives!!! Now they are projecting things out into their visual world that aren’t even there (and that “happen” to correlate with the mood of the music they were listening to at the time…that’s just freaky). It’ll be cool to see more follow-up studies like this! =)

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