The entire reason music exists is because of its almost magical ability to push your buttons. An upbeat song gets you going, a sad song makes you cry and drink. But the more science studies music's effect on the human brain, the more bizarre things we discover.
For instance ...
Hold music -- the stuff you hear on the line when you call everyone from the bank to your local bail bond agency -- didn't fall into America's phone lines by accident. It's designed specifically to reduce the amount of time you think you're waiting, so that you're less likely to hang up in anger. Other places that involve waiting, such as doctors' offices, use a similar trick. Time shrinkage is also the aim of most retail stores, which is why you'll rarely enter a mall, supermarket or clothing store without hearing some sort of music in the background.
Our coke dealer always has Iggy Pop on at his apartment.
How the hell does music do that?
To understand why exactly music makes it seem like less time has passed, think of the human brain as a mountain lion that is eating a bag of money. It doesn't matter what the zookeepers distract it with -- food, shiny objects or just shouting and yelling. All that matters is that they give another zookeeper the chance to sneak up and retrieve the money while the lion is busy deciding which one of them to eat.
Similarly, when your brain is steadily distracted, you'll be less likely to notice things around you in detail, and this includes the passage of time. Our brains have limited input capacity, and when something else is using up that capacity, we're less likely to think things like, "I've been standing in line to get Richard Moll's autograph for three goddamn hours" or "Do I really need this Garfield alarm clock?"
"Will Katy Perry really sleep with me if I keep buying her music?"
But it works the opposite way, too. In some situations, listening to music can actually expand perceived time. For example, listening to music while performing tasks that require concentration will usually cause us to overestimate the amount of time that has passed. The theory is that as your mind switches back and forth between perception of the music and concentration on the challenging tasks, it forms separate "events," or distinct memories. When your brain thinks about what you've been doing for the past hour, you'll remember more of these events and recall that the hour was quite long.
Experiments have found that time also expands when we're listening to familiar music that we dislike.
When we hear the opening chords of a song, our brain remembers the whole thing and immediately skips ahead and plays it mentally. This fake mind-music is extremely vivid, working on exactly the same parts of the brain as actual music does. So the effect is that you take a few moments to vividly imagine that you're sitting through five minutes of that damn New Radicals song before you come back to reality only to realize that you still actually have to sit through it.
OK, imagine how you would sound for a second if you saw your friend Jason across the street and wanted to get his attention by yelling his name. Now imagine you see your friend Jason across the street, suddenly realize a car is careening down the road about to hit him, and shout his name to warn him.
"Sorry, Mike, I thought you were Jason."
Despite the fact that you are yelling the same thing both times, even in your head you can hear how the two sound different. Human beings have a very good, very nuanced sense of what kind of noise indicates a greeting and what kind of noise indicates you are about to be mauled by a honey badger. And that sense is being used against you in every scary movie you have ever seen. There is a reason that horror films scare the crap out of us, and it's not just the creepy settings, dramatic buildup and sudden reveal of the bad guy RIGHT BEHIND YOU. It's the music.
And, sometimes, the Jack Nicholson.
How the hell does music do that?
There are certain sounds that humans will automatically associate with sudden and painful death because they tap into our evolutionary fear of the screams of other animals (and other human beings). Screams of fear in almost any animal are made up of what scientists have dubbed "discordant noises." Any noise that makes you feel very unpleasant falls into this category. We know if we hear other living things making those discordant noises that we have to get the fuck out, because something bad is going to happen.
Movie directors know this and make good use of it when deciding on the score for a film. That dramatic buildup and subsequent scary reveal is almost always accompanied by really freaky music or somebody screaming his ass off (or both).
But this technique is hardly limited to horror movies. For instance, in his original draft of The Social Network, Andy Sorkin wanted a song called "Love of the Common People" to play over the opening credits scene. Here's what that would have looked like:
That poppy calypso music makes you feel that everything is dandy. Sure, Mark Zuckerberg has just been dumped, but it's all OK! He's running through the Harvard campus and is about to invent Facebook and become a billionaire. Yay!
Instead, we got a Trent Reznor-penned tune that sounded like this:
Listen to that lower-level background music throughout. It sounds like random, angry notes played behind a simple piano tune, and those notes are creating discordant sound. Suddenly you're apprehensive, feeling like something really bad is about to happen (we're talking getting sued for $64 million bad). So next time you're getting a little too freaked out by a movie, remember that muting the television is a far better decision than looking away.
Depending on the film, you might want to do both.
It's no secret that many people prefer to listen to music when they work out. But music doesn't just make physical activity more pleasant -- it actually makes our physical performance measurably better. When listening to music, people are able to hold heavy weights for longer than when they're standing in silence. They can also complete sprints in smaller amounts of time and are even able to reduce their oxygen intake.
This is why Rocky does all of his training in musical montages.
How the hell does music do that?
Similar to the time-perception effect we referenced above, one element is just plain old distraction. Obviously, if your mind is listening to music, it's not thinking about how much your legs hurt or how much longer you've got to run before the treadmill makes that final beeping noise. But there's much more to it than that.
First, there's synchronicity. When you match your movements to a steady musical tempo, you spend less time and effort on the inefficient slowing down and speeding up that happens when you're going by your own rhythm. Music also increases the incidence of "flow" states -- states of meditation-like calm in which everything works right for an athlete and that is strongly linked to enhanced performance.
It's all in the music.
Music can even make you feel less pain. Patients listening to music after surgery need less sedatives, report less pain and have lower blood pressure. As if that's not impressive enough, doctors have found that specially selected melodic music dramatically reduces stress in patients during unsedated brain surgery. In some cases, music caused patients to relax so much that many of them fell into a deep sleep, while people sliced into their exposed brains with fucking scalpels.
And even if you're lucky enough to be asleep during surgery, there's a good chance the doctors working on you are listening to music, since most surgeons believe it improves their performance, too. So the next time you're about to go under a general anesthetic, consider the fact that the guy with the scalpel might soon be timing his incisions to Whitesnake.
"Here I go again on my own, sawing through the whitest bones I've ever knooown ..."