Ed Sheeran's 'Castle on the Hill' manipulates emotion to appeal to a wide audience Eva Rinaldi

Music pervades our daily lives. Its harmonies, rhythms and melodies have an ability to influence our psychologies and emotions in ways often unbeknown to us: existential crises alleviated by quick doses of Pink Floyd, lovesickness cured by a Sinatra session or an (ironic) dose of James Blunt, a stressful day remedied by an evening of Einaudi. A famous statement by Bob Marley goes to the heart of the therapeutic power of music: “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain”.

Nothing illustrates the potent psychological impact of music better than the effect that melancholy music has on our emotions. A recent study conducted jointly by researchers at Durham University and the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, using nearly 2,500 volunteers, played each person ‘sad’ music and recorded their emotional responses. Two-thirds of people tested said that they experienced pleasure or comfort during their listening. Explanations for such a result vary, but one dominant hypothesis put forward by the psychologist Adrian North divides the responsibility between two closely connected academic disciplines: social psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

Central to the psychological explanation is the notion of ‘downward social comparison’. This relates to how we subconsciously feel better about ourselves if someone else is doing worse than us. In other words: everything will be fine because Tom Odell is having an even more torrid time than you. Another theory argues that melancholy music mirrors the situations that depressed or anxious people may be in, thus resonating with them and providing emotional relief. The song effectively normalises or ‘rationalises’ a sad experience someone may have had, making them see their ordeal as part of a wider narrative of ordeals and episodes that other people have experienced. This is why so many artists and songwriters find relationship breakups such a fruitful subject matter: appeal to a wide audience is guaranteed and there’s strong financial potential in implicitly marketing your song as ‘post-breakup therapy’. A cynic (i.e. me) would see Adele as effectively monopolising this music-making practice with tracks such as the beautifully generic ‘Someone Like You’ and ‘Hello’.

“Listening to any type of music will cause the release of dopamine – the hormone associated with activities such as sex, drugs, and eating”

From a more scientific standpoint, it has been argued that melancholy music is linked to the production of the hormone prolactin, a chemical associated with the curbing of grief. When listening to ‘The End’ by the Doors, for instance, your brain’s pituitary glands will release the hormone in anticipation of the traumatic event that Jim Morrison builds to – the fictional parricide. The brain is essentially preparing you for this event actually happening. When it doesn’t materialise in real life, the body is left full of pleasure-inducing opiates with nowhere else to go, leading to a feeling of elation and happiness. Similarly, listening to any type of music will cause the release of dopamine – the hormone associated with activities such as sex, drugs, and eating, which will induce similar feelings of happiness.

Physical or biological processes are constantly at play, influencing our psychological response to a song. This is epitomised by the so-called ‘skin orgasm’, or frisson, that some experience when listening to moving music. Frisson, a French term meaning ‘aesthetic chills’, is a phenomenon that causes a tingling sensation all over your skin. According to recent research, between 55 per cent and 86 per cent of the population are able to experience this. It is often a response to an unexpected harmonic change or a sudden rise in volume – think Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2, or, on a very similar scale, the simply euphoric key change near the end of Westlife’s ‘You Raise Me Up’. The line between biological and psychological processes is therefore blurred when it comes to listening to moving music.

Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No.2 elicits an emotional response in a similar way to Westlife's 'You Raise Me Up' Bain News Service

It is clear when listening to popular music how knowledge of psychological response has influenced the work of artists and music producers. One only needs to listen to Ed Sheeran’s most recent foray into populist music to realise how carefully artists target certain psychological or emotional responses in their listeners in order to appeal to the widest possible range of people. ‘Castle on the Hill’, for instance, is a masterclass in emotional targeting: a driving rhythm is overlaid with generic coming-of-age lyrics, while the central image of a ‘castle’, while ostensibly original, is something almost anyone can relate to in some fond, reminiscing way. In its harmonic, tonal, and lyrical composition, this song was designed to be a popular hit.

“The line between biological and psychological processes is blurred when it comes to listening to moving music”  

Despite this cynical view of the state of popular music, it is fair to say that music still has immense potential to influence our psychologies and our mood states. So if you’re struggling through yet another caffeine-fuelled essay crisis, or are suffering the consequences of a particularly decadent Wednesday evening at Cindies, a melancholy ballad (or two) may be the cure for you. As the esteemed theologian Albert Schweitzer said: “There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats”

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