The 5 Weirdest Ways Music Can Mess With the Human Brain


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 ...

It Changes Your Ability to Perceive Time

The 5 Weirdest Ways Music Can Mess With the Human Brain

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.

The 5 Weirdest Ways Music Can Mess With the Human Brain

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?"

The 5 Weirdest Ways Music Can Mess With the Human Brain

"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.

Color Theest of Me Badd

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.

It Taps Into Primal Fear

The 5 Weirdest Ways Music Can Mess With the Human Brain

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.


As illustrated.

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.

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Depending on the film, you might want to do both.

It Makes You Stronger

The 5 Weirdest Ways Music Can Mess With the Human Brain

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.

The 5 Weirdest Ways Music Can Mess With the Human Brain

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.

The 5 Weirdest Ways Music Can Mess With the Human Brain

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.

The 5 Weirdest Ways Music Can Mess With the Human Brain

"Here I go again on my own, sawing through the whitest bones I've ever knooown ..."

It Changes Your Drinking Habits

The 5 Weirdest Ways Music Can Mess With the Human Brain

Did you ever wake up in the back of a taxi after a long night of tossing down cognac and prune juice and wonder how your pants got replaced by a thick but clumsily applied coat of colorful body paint? Well, now there's something to blame it on besides your bad childhood: music.

What they play in the bar doesn't just affect how much you drink, but what you drink.

The 5 Weirdest Ways Music Can Mess With the Human Brain

Nothing goes with Lady Gaga like cheap, awful tequila.

How the hell does music do that?

Did you know you can make a person buy more expensive wine just by playing classical music? Experiments prove it. It makes people feel like they're in a wine commercial or in a movie depicting refined, snooty rich people. OK, that one sort of makes sense -- we doubt anyone ever drank Wild Irish Rose while listening to Vivaldi.

But in another blind study, different types of music playing in the background caused drinkers to change how they'd described the drinks they already had. Laid-back music led people to rate drinks as "mellow," and upbeat music resulted in more people calling their drinks "refreshing." Even stranger, in another study researchers placed German and French wines in supermarkets, with small flags next to each display so customers could tell which countries they came from. They then played some unobtrusive international music in the background. When German music was played, the percentage of German sales rose, and vice versa.


Listening to this would inspire us to drink, too.

This wasn't because customers thought to themselves, Ah! Germany! I will celebrate the Fatherland with some nice wine! Questionnaires showed that customers couldn't recall what type of music was playing and thought they'd chosen a particular wine simply because they'd felt like it.

The people selling you the drinks know all of this stuff -- or at least, the successful ones do. We've pointed out before that bars and nightclubs often play fast music to increase alcohol-based profit. But other establishments, particularly upscale restaurants, prefer slow, relaxing music, which, believe it or not, can also make you drink more. The tempo of music is linked to your body's arousal level, or the "speed" at which your nervous system operates. Fast music heightens arousal (heh), so patrons will do everything more quickly, including eating and drinking and leaving their infant by the salad bar. Which is good for a restaurant owner if he's just concerned with getting you out the door so he can serve more (and presumably better) people.

The 5 Weirdest Ways Music Can Mess With the Human Brain

"Here's the check. You have exactly seven minutes to fuck off."

On the other hand, slower music means that you eat at a more leisurely pace. Maybe you'll even stay to chat with your companions after you're done with your meal. All this time passing means you're likely to buy more drinks every time the waiter comes around to ask, and at a restaurant that's charging $70 a bottle, that makes up for any lost table space.

Some restaurants go as far as to purchase a personalized selection of songs specially designed by "sound branding" companies, which select songs based on whatever tempo or atmosphere the restaurant is aiming to achieve.

The 5 Weirdest Ways Music Can Mess With the Human Brain

Italian goes down better with GWAR.

It Makes You a Better Communicator

The 5 Weirdest Ways Music Can Mess With the Human Brain

How does a narcissistic ass like John Mayer, who isn't even that attractive, still have hot women of all ages throwing themselves at him? It's the guitar, isn't it?


Acoustic guitars: Getting douchebags laid since 1100 C.E.

Actually, a trained musician like Mayer would probably be able to talk a woman into his bed without ever even playing a note. It turns out that studying music gives you an advantage when it comes to perceiving the emotions of others, so all those years of being chained to a piano as a child are finally going to work in your favor.

The 5 Weirdest Ways Music Can Mess With the Human Brain

You'll have to find something else to resent your mother over.

People who can play instruments at near-professional level can detect subtle emotional changes and intonations in the vocal tones of others. In other words, they know whether you are actually sad when you say you're fine, even when most non-musicians would have no idea. Not only that, but the fact that they studied music makes them better able to tune out background noise, so they are even better at paying attention to what you are saying in that crowded restaurant or bar.

How the hell does music do that?

Research shows that people who have studied music actually have brains wired differently than non-musicians. This rewiring makes them better able to express emotions they are feeling, but it also makes them more able to understand the emotions others express. Music is very emotional, and people wired to understand those subtle emotional changes can also detect them in the vocal tones of someone talking. The emotion of the music translates to knowing when your boss is secretly mad or your mother is secretly disappointed.


Although let's be honest -- her disappointment has never been a secret.

The sooner you start learning music, the more pronounced this re-wiring is. Scientists think that teaching children music might help kids with autism better understand vocal cues and encode speech. The fact that this brain re-wiring helps them tune out background noise could also help kids stay focused in noisy classrooms. It is also something that gets better the more you play, so sticking to your piano lessons now could lead to a powerful advantage in your future dating world.

The 5 Weirdest Ways Music Can Mess With the Human Brain

"I literally have a forest of vaginas waiting for me in my hotel room."

To learn how else you can secretly manipulate people, pick up our new book.

For more information on the power of music, check out 7 Insane Ways Music Affects the Body (According to Science). Or learn about other musicians who have seas of vaginas in their hotel rooms, in The 6 Most Atrocious Uses of Facial Hair in Music History.

And stop by Linkstorm to see how all the folks at Cracked are coming along on their "Body is a Wonderland" training.

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