Does Listening to Chill Music Make You a Better Person?
There’s a reason that the peace movement is associated with festivals.
Illustration by Ben Thomson
This article is supported by Spotify, because life (and apparently the world) is better with music.
Music can be chill. And chill people definitely listen to music. But can music make someone more chill? These are the questions pondered by the members of St Kilda Beach drumming circles, and also a group of Japanese scientists in 2011, who found that listening to certain kinds of music can make listeners more altruistic.
In order to assess the ability of music to promote kindness and generosity among ordinary listeners, Nara University medical researcher Hajime Fukui presented 22 of his students with a simulation that asked them to distribute an amount of money between a fictional group of people whose images they’d been presented with on a computer screen. They were given this exercise several times: once after listening to their favourite kind of music, then again after listening to music they disliked, and again after enduring a period of silence. Guess what happened?
Correct. The students were more inclined to be generous with money after listening to the music they’d enjoyed—specifically, tracks picked out by Fukui’s research team that induced an overwhelmingly positive emotional and physical response that the team referred to as “the chills”. The research, so Fukui says, suggests that listening to this sort of chill-inducing music promotes altruistic behaviour.
As slightly far-fetched as it sounds, the link between music and altruism is backed by a growing body of thought within academic circles. It’s also worth noting that, more generally, the healing abilities of music are well-acknowledged. In 2013, a meta-analysis of 400 different studies by psychologists at McGill University found that listening to music not only feels good for the listener but can also translate to physiological benefits. It can be used to manage stress, and even physical pain. Music might even be a good hangover cure.
Fukui’s study followed a 2004 finding by British and Australian researchers that music can promote “helpful” behaviour among listeners. The team gathered more than 600 people in a university gym and exposed them to either uplifting or irritating playlists while they worked out. As the study participants exited the gym, they were asked to voluntarily complete two different tasks which required different levels of effort: signing a petition for a fake charity, and distributing leaflets on behalf of the fake charity. Sneaky. And yes, while almost every participant agreed to the easier task, it was mainly the participants who’d been listening to uplifting tunes that agreed to go the extra mile and distribute leaflets. The music (was it DJ Khaled?) appeared to have put them in an altruistic mood.
University of Melbourne psychological researcher James Richmond is currently completing a PhD on this very topic: the ability of music to increase what he refers to as “positive social behaviours”. There’s more to it than giving out fake money or leaflets—he hopes that future findings could help treat the symptoms of mental illness, like social isolation and low mood, and is particularly interested in not only the positive effects of listening to music but also actively participating in group musical activities like singing or dancing.
“Pretty much all the studies in this area have found that doing that kind of activity in sync with other people gets a positive social effect,” he explains. “The shared experience is inherently socially bonding. It’s been referred to as the ‘icebreaker’ effect.”
There’s a reason that the peace movement is associated with music festivals; there’s a reason that benefit concerts exist and songs like “We Are the World” were written. Uplifting music, particularly in a group or social setting, promotes empathy and emotional connection with a cause. Studies have shown that children with racial prejudices have overcome stereotypes after participating in a series of school music classes with peers from diverse backgrounds. But there are, of course, qualifiers: do these effects last outside of the music classes, once the feel-good effects of singing fun songs have worn off? Did Woodstock really do much to promote world peace?
“The effects of music on our beliefs, our emotions, and our feelings of affiliation and trust make it a powerful stimulus for bringing people together, and creating a collective sense of identity,” says Bill Thompson, a psychology professor at Macquarie University’s Music, Sound, and Performance Lab.
“Although it might also be pointed out that the effects of listening to preferred music are not always positive, and there are limits to its potential to nurture generosity and good will towards others. Music might enhance feelings of affiliation with people who share your values, but it also has the capacity to sharpen the boundary between those on the ‘inside’ of your circle and those outside of it.”
Either way, there’s something enticing about the idea that listening to your slightly embarrassing morning pump up playlist makes you a better person. We’ll take it.
And if you're in the mood for some feel-good jams, look no further than this mixtape we've curated to help make the world a better place.
This article is supported by Spotify.