When we listen to a song, we do so not only to satisfy an artistic or aesthetic need but also, and perhaps especially, for its communicative and emotional value. The song is, in fact, a means of communicating a message to people as a whole. It can speak to the body by stimulating the senses; it touches our affective sphere by arousing emotions; and it reaches out to our relational world because listening is often experienced as an activity to be shared.
How listening impacts us
Every form of communication is never neutral and always has consequences for the listener. Communication is not limited to the spoken exchanges we have with others; there is also a personal level of communication that happens through our thoughts and reflections. When we imagine a certain scenario, we’re already laying the groundwork for it to potentially happen.
The words we listen to not only have the effect of describing a situation but can also contribute to creating it, because listening alters our perspective and generates thoughts that can influence our mood and, consequently, our actions. They affect our brain, they shape how we perceive our context, and they mould our personality.
The behavioural stimuli from words
Rita Goldstein, a professor of neuroimaging, conducted a study with her team at the Brookhaven National Laboratory to deepen our understanding of how words act on the brain through the stimulation of specific hormones. For instance, the mere visualisation of the word “no” stimulates the release of cortisol, the hormone responsible for stress. Furthermore, thanks to the priming effect, which results from an unconscious memory system, being exposed to certain stimuli can influence subsequent behaviours.
To illustrate, an experiment by the University of Lyon’s Claude Bernard demonstrated that if you listen to verbs related to physical activity later, you exert greater force when grasping objects, indicating a link between listening and a propensity for action. Thus, it’s not hard to see how words can lead to changes in mood, with more structured and lasting effects the longer the exposure to listening lasts. This underscores the importance of absorbing positive messages for real benefit.
A closer look at negative words
Let’s revisit the word ‘no’ and the use of denial for a moment. While it’s been shown that listening to action-related verbs (for example, “go”, “do”) can spur us to act, the same verbs used in the negative form (“do not go” and “do not do”) have little to no effect or might even encourage us to engage in the very behaviour we intend to avoid. This is because the brain isn’t wired to process negations easily; to understand a negation, it must first comprehend the affirmative concept before it can negate it. This is a more complex task that requires additional time and energy.
The effect of lyrics
We’re aware that listening to music evokes emotions, but the songs we listen to also have the power to influence our behaviour, and this is down to the lyrics that accompany the melodies. This was demonstrated by some research that we will briefly examine.
In 2011, the University of Illinois at Knox conducted an experiment to assess how exposure to a song could encourage aggressive behaviour. Three groups of students participated in the experiment. The first group listened to a heavy metal song with lyrics that incited violence. The second group listened to the same heavy metal music but without lyrics, and the third group was not exposed to any music. Each participant was then given a glass of water and hot sauce and was instructed to prepare a drink for another person to consume. As the researchers anticipated, those who had listened to heavy metal music with violent lyrics were more likely to add a larger quantity of hot sauce to the water. Meanwhile, there was minimal difference between the group that listened to music without lyrics and the group that listened to nothing, suggesting that the aggressive behaviour was linked to the lyrics rather than the music itself.
When we listen to a song, particularly when it’s in the background while we’re engaged in other activities, we often enjoy the melody without paying close attention to the lyrics, unaware of the effect they can have on our subconscious. For example, research has examined how song lyrics can promote specific behaviours, such as alcohol consumption. Psychologist Rutger Engles, from Radboud University in the Netherlands, conducted a study with pub managers who played songs with references to alcohol for two hours a day. After several weeks, the patrons exhibited a dual effect: they consumed more alcohol and lingered longer in the pub, which, in turn, increased consumption.
Just as lyrics can induce negative behaviours related to aggression or alcohol use, they can also promote positive behaviours. A study by the University of Innsbruck involved two groups of students who were asked to answer a questionnaire about music in exchange for two euros. During the experiment, one group listened to songs with social messages, while the other group heard neutral songs. Afterwards, both groups were offered the opportunity to donate their earnings to a charity. The result was that 53% of the participants who had listened to socially-themed songs chose to donate their compensation, compared to 31% of those who had listened to neutral songs. The study demonstrated that listening not only influenced thoughts but also behaviour, encouraging greater altruism in those exposed to socially conscious songs.
When lyrics may represent a danger
It’s widely acknowledged that teenagers are some of the most avid consumers of music. Research indicates that at this age, brain plasticity is crucial for learning, allowing them to immerse themselves fully in new experiences. However, a significant portion of popular music carries messages that could undermine self-image and encourage negative, sometimes even dangerous, behaviour. The American Academy of Paediatrics’ Communication Committee has voiced concerns about the negative impact of such lyrics. Studies have shown an uptick in songs emphasising sex, drugs, and violence.
When such behaviours are depicted in music and music videos, it’s challenging to dismiss the possibility that these messages could have a detrimental impact. As people develop a sense of purpose and begin to emulate behaviours that appear to lead to pleasurable outcomes, it’s concerning that the music industry often glorifies drugs and violence, potentially influencing young teens to believe these experiences are worth pursuing.
Fortunately, not all songs undermine well-being; listening to music with prosocial lyrics can increase empathy, leading to more collaborative behaviour and mutual aid across various contexts.
Annalisa Balestrieri holds a master’s degree in modern literature with a psycho-pedagogical specialisation from the State University of Milan.