15 August 2019, Comments: 0

Music, emotions and Leadership

This article does not answer the question of whether music causes emotions – this is relatively undisputed – but explains how we experience music and how the brain processes it.  

“The fact that music has a special effect on our emotional world is clear and almost trivial for everyone. Almost every event is initiated and accompanied by music. One is emotionally harmonized by music and put in the same mood with the listeners. Through suitable music, one can calm oneself and others, stimulate, create joy or make aggressive.”[1]

Music has always existed ever since and has been found in every known present or past culture. Music is strongly influenced by the culture of a region or country and of the time. The moments, when music is played and the emotions that music creates also vary between regions and time-periods. It is most likely that the first instrument, was the human voice. The oldest musical instrument found was a flute, which is about 35.000 years old.

Music has a lot of power. In advertising, music is deliberately used to create emotions that lead to a purchase. In one experiment, “test persons were shown a picture of a light blue or a beige pen while at the same time music was played that the participants liked or disliked. After the test the participants were allowed to choose a pen (either light blue or beige) as a thank you for their participation in the experiment. By varying the music and colours, it could be shown that the test person selected in 79% of the cases the pen whose image they had previously seen while listening to their favourite music. The music influenced the choice.”[2]   This experiment shows how powerful music is and how we are unconsciously influenced in our decision especially, when we are in shops and supermarkets, but also, when we see advertising.

Unfortunately, it is not quite as easy with the influence, because music is experienced emotionally in different ways. Lutz[3]differentiates between learned preferences and biological given reactions.

In the second case, the biological given reactions, our brain is programmed to identify specific acoustic stimuli quickly and accurately. Typical stimuli that trigger defence and escape reactions in humans are e.g. loud stimuli, pops, hollow, low notes or dissonant sounds. Stimuli which trigger positive reactions are e.g. regular patterns, medium volume range, slow starting and changing stimuli and consonant sounds.[4]There is no way to escape from the impact of these sounds in a first instance. Taking time to observe and understanding the situation can help to restrain from the first reaction.

Learned preferences are about experiences. We like what we hear often. This was already proved in 1903 by the social psychologist Meyer, who rehearsed different styles of music repeatedly and where frequently presented music was rated more positively than the one that was played only once. This has been proven for different styles of music such as jazz, tonal and atonal classical music, Korean and Pakistani music, but also for random sequences of tones.[5]

This means that the emotional rating of music is highly dependent on experience with the music. “For citizens educated in Western cultures some sounds from Asian or Arab countries seem foreign and often provoke reserve or even aversion, while for Arabs and Asians the same music triggers the highest ecstasy. … This does not mean that citizens of other cultures cannot appreciate the music of other cultural groups, but it requires intense experience with this type of music.”[6]

In addition to experience, emotional reactions in music also vary highly between people or even one and the same person. The reasons are manifold and include e.g. current mood of the listener, personality of the listener, other activities besides listening to music, cultural and life-time fluctuations.[7]

Sequences that trigger emotions

“However, research on the emotional responses to music has also shown that certain characteristics of the music itself can evoke emotions. Even if music does not recall anything in particular, and if it does not imitate anything specific, it can evoke emotions.”[8]Musical highlights, a certain harmonic or melodic sequence or a new or unprepared harmony can cause physical reactions, such as tears, goose skin or an increase of the pulse. One can experience this regularly in films, which use music to bring even more emotions to a love-scene or a dangerous situation. Music has also the power to heal and is more and more used in medicine, e.g. to reduce stress after a chemotherapy or restore the speech after a stroke.[9]

Music activates a network in the brain

Neuropsychologist Lutz Jäncke[10]states that when listening to emotional music, the limbic system[11]is activated strongly. He describes the limbic system as combination of different brain structures, which is central to the processing of emotions.

“During music perception, the individual music stimuli are processed at different levels. Within the first 900 milliseconds after stimulus, elementary (pitch, timbre, intensity, etc.) but also complex characteristics of the music (melody, rhythm) and their mental processing results (semantics and memory) are noticed. At each stage of processing there are links to many other areas, in particular to movement but also to speech. Many brain areas are responsible for the perception of music. Interestingly, these brain areas are not only involved in the processing of music, but also in many other functions. Therefore, one cannot identify a typical area for the recognition of music in the human brain. Today, we’re talking about a network for music perception. “[12]

Example: In one study (Blood and Zatorre, 2001), 10 people listened to pieces of music that caused “goose bumps” while, among others things, the cerebral blood flow of these participants were measured. While listening to this music, the heart rate, muscle tone and breathing depth increased as expected. It was interesting, however, that the circulation in the brain areas, which is of central importance for the control of motivation and excitement, also increased. (the ventral striatum, the orbital frontal cortex, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and the island area).

These are the areas of the brain that are also active in many other situations where extremely pleasant emotions prevail. An example of this is an orgasm, when a drug addict takes drugs, when one wins something or looks at the image of a beautiful woman, etc.[13]This shows again the power of music, which creates intensive moments of well-being and happiness and which can lead to healing and transformation of our brain.

Music and Leadership

What does that mean for leadership? As a leader, it is about being aware of the emotional impact of music. Music can trigger deep emotions. As an individual, one can use music to put oneself in certain moods, to activate oneself, to be happy or thoughtful or to calm oneself. It supports the personal well-being and can support healing processes.

Music can also be selected for its emotional impact. So one can choose for creative processes an activating music, which will inspire the team in the planning. This music can also help e.g. to get up in the morning, while after work maybe relaxation and softer music is preferred. Lutz[14]also describes seasonal variations for music. In the autumn and winter, reflective music, which also demands the sentimental-associative listening habit, is preferred. One thinks about the past year, about life in general or specific life events.



Blood, A.J., Zatorre, R.J., Bermudez P., Evans AC (1999): Emotional responses to pleasant and unpleasant music correlate with activity in paralimbic brain regions. Nature Neuroscience 2: 382 – 387.

Blood, A.J., Zatorre, R.J. (2001): Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 20(98), 11818-11823.

Gorn Gj (1982) the effect of music in advertisin g on choice behavior: a classica conditioning approach. Journal of Marketing 46: 94 – 101.

Jäncke, Lutz (2008): Macht Musik schlau? Neue Erkenntnisse aus den Neurowissenschaften und der kognitiven Pschologie. Bern: Huber.

Merz, Beverly (2015): Healing through Music. Link: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/healing-through-music-201511058556

Sloboda, JA (1991): Music structure and emotional response: some empirical findings. Psychology of Music 19: 110 – 120.

Spitzer, Manfred (2014): Musik im Kopf. Hören, Musizieren, Verstehen und Erleben im neuronalen Netzwerk. 2. Auflage. München: Schattauer.


[1]Lutz Jäncke, S. 237

[2]Spitzer Manfred, S. 379

[3]Lutz Jäncke, S. 240 ff

[4]In music, a distinction is made between consonant and dissonant sounds. It’s about the harmony of sounds. Consonant intervals are considered self-contained, while dissonant sounds call for continuation into a consonance.

[5]Lutz Jäncke, S. 247

[6]Lutz Jäncke S. 239f

[7]Lutz S. 249

[8]Spitzer Manfred, S. 365ff.

[9]Merz, Beverly

[10]Lutz Jäncke, S. 260

[11]The limbic system includes hippocampus, fornix, corpora mamillare, cingulate gyrus, amygdala, and frontal parts of the thalamus.

[12]Lutz Jäncke, S. 408

[13]Lutz, Jäncke, S. 261f.

[14]Lutz, S 256

Irene Rojnik

15 years experience in working with International NGO; Master in communication; degree in mediation, master in systemic coaching and organizational development; expertise and interest around Leadership in connection with intercultural learning, diversity, gender equality, communication and conflict resolution. Working with the strengths of people, understanding the power of emotions and working with the body play an important role in her work.


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