Strange Sounds

Theta waves and chills: 6 intriguing ways music affects the brain

Music can decrease stress levels, influence creativity, and become tied to memories that define who we are.

Originally Published: 
GIF it up/Giphy

ZU_09/Getty Images

Music isn't necessary for human survival, but it can help us thrive.

It allows us to communicate, de-stress, and tap into new ways of thinking.

There's a chance you might need at least one of those things right now, so take a moment and listen...

There's a scientific explanation for how that music made you feel

Music still is a bit of a mystery, but here's what scientists know for sure.


1. The experience of musical chills are related to the brain's reward system

Frontiers in Neuroscience

A study published Monday in the journal Frontiers In Neuroscience showed that the experience of musical chills was linked to increased theta waves (brain activity that follows regular oscillations) power in the orbitofrontal cortex.

Paul Taylor/Getty Images

The study was conducted on 18 people who got the chills an average of 16.9 times each over the course of the experiment.

Viorika Klotz / EyeEm/ Getty Images

The team argued that the increase in theta wave power was a signal of a reward response happening below the brain's surface: the release of dopamine was in response to a chill-inducing musical moment.

That pattern was identified in past studies.

2. Singing together can affect the release of hormones related to social bonding and stress

kali9/Getty Images

A 2015 study in Frontiers in Neuroscience investigated hormone levels in a four-person vocal jazz ensemble.

During improvisation and pre-arranged singing sessions, scientists measured levels of oxytocin, a hormone related to social bonding.


They also measured ACTH, a hormone involved in the production of cortisol – a hormone released during stress.

Frontiers in Neuroscience

ACTH levels were significantly lower after group singing sessions for both improvised and non-improvised signing sessions.

Oxytocin levels decreased when people sang together in standard conditions. Levels increased when they improvised together.

3. Happy music can stimulate "divergent creativity"

A 2017 study in PLOS One found that 155 participants (122 women), performed better on tests of divergent creativity when happy music was playing, but not other types of music like calming music or sad music.

The song used in the study was “The Spring,” one of the movements in Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.


BorisSV/Getty Images

Divergent creativity is the type of creativity that allows people to come up with more than one solution to a problem. In this study, the team asked people to come up with as many possible uses for a brick to measure that type of creativity.

The authors suggest that music can help stimulate that type of creativity, which lends itself to problem-solving.

“However, when getting stuck in a rut, it can be helpful to, instead of digging deeper, dig elsewhere," the scientists explained.

4. However, music can limit another type of creativity

Andrea Donetti / EyeEm/ Getty Images

Per a 2019 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, music can also “significantly impair” verbal creativity.

Verbal creativity was measured in a word association task.

Participants had to come up with one word to add to a group, like “sun” to a group consisting of “(sun)flower,” “(sun)dial”, “(sun)dress.”

Thirty participants completed these tasks.


Music with no lyrics, familiar lyrics, and unfamiliar lyrics significantly decreased performance on these tasks.

5. Music can also be rewarding because it fulfills our desire to learn

A November 2019 study in the Journal of Neuroscience found that, across two experiments, people preferred songs of “intermediate complexity.”

Those songs balance surprising twists with predictable outcomes.

This music represents a manageable challenge.

We anticipate successfully completing that challenge. When we anticipate successfully, it can trigger a release of dopamine.

This release may motivate us to learn again.

6. Music can become tied to memories that define us

Mara Elizabeth Ludwig/ Getty Images

A 2020 study published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology analyzed the songs that celebrities said they would bring with them to a desert island. They pulled that data from BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs.


Half of the songs chosen by the 80 guests were songs linked to important memories when the guests were between 10 and 19-years-old or between 20 and 29-years-old.

Westend61/Getty Images

Memories from teenage or early adult years are “disproportionately available” in old age, the authors note.

Other researchers call this the “reminiscence bump” which means that during early adult and teen years, the brain is taking more memory snapshots compared to other periods.

“We believe our results show that music becomes intrinsically linked to these very important memories.”

Want to learn more about the brain? Click here.

Thanks for reading,
head home for more!