I never used to listen to Justin Bieber. I was sure I didn’t like him.
But when I heard his 2015 song Love Yourself, I found, to my embarrassment, that I didn’t hate it.
I remember the day when I first listened to this song; I’d had a rough day at work and all I wanted to do was relax.
I turned my music player on shuffle and his song started playing.
Then I thought, ‘I can’t be the only person who’s had this experience of being affected by music I thought I’d hate’.
It turns out I was right.
It’s surprisingly common that people don’t know what music makes them feel good.
How music affects our brain
It’s very hard for us to measure how music affects someone, because our opinions are subjective.
But what we do know is what’s going on in the brain.
First, the component of our brain that perceives sound — the auditory cortex — recognises music as non-verbal sound.
From there, it impacts the limbic system, a crucial part of our emotional response system, which can then affect our physical response.
This is how something that we listen to can affect our body.
While music can give us sudden chills and tingles, our bodies can also react in ways we don’t perceive, such as specific patterns in our heart rate or a change in blood pressure.
By measuring these physiological signals, we can learn what a piece of particular music is doing to our bodies.
As a researcher, I conduct experiments where I ask my participants to sit down and listen to music, such as Love Yourself, whilst wearing a watch and headset.
As they listen, these devices use advanced sensors to record the physiological reactions of the participants; things like heart rate, skin temperature, sweat glands, and brain waves.
I’ve built an artificial intelligence system that can use this data to automatically learn patterns in relation to the type of music and the emotional and physiological reactions.
Then the AI can predict the emotions the participants are feeling almost better than they can!
Ninety-six per cent of the time my system knows what genre of music they are listening to and how it’s making them feel.
That’s groovy, but why does this matter?
Music can influence our mood and improve concentration while doing different tasks.
During this global pandemic, many people have reported a drop in their attention span while working from home.
Since February last year, there has been a 300 per cent increase in people searching “how to get your brain to focus”, a 110 per cent increase in “how to focus better”, and a 60 per cent rise in “how to increase focus”.
Listening to the right music can help improve focus in daily life activities, but what type of music is right for you?
You might have seen articles saying, “listen to this music for three minutes and it will help you work all day long”, or “listen to this music and you will immediately relax and go to sleep” — a modern-day take on the Mozart Effect.
But do they work for everyone?
Many of these music pieces are created with particular beats that aim to enhance a specific brain wave.
Often this is the gamma wave, which is associated with increased focus, concentration and problem-solving ability.
So in one of my experiments, I asked my participants to listen to this music that was said to induce gamma waves to increase concentration.
Interestingly, many of my participants did not like the music.
One of them said they “disliked the continuous underlying tone, it became quite irritating”.
Another one said “the background droning noise was off-putting, it sounded sci-fi-like”.
I also asked them to do some tasks as they were listening to this music.
And to my surprise, they performed very poorly at the task.
So, I looked into their physiological signals to see which parts of their brains were activated, including if the music enhanced gamma waves.
The patterns detected by the AI system showed they were distracted from the task, rather than the music giving them focus.
Now you may think, “maybe they just don’t like listening to music when they do other tasks?”
Well, I did play another song and asked them to do the same task, and that actually helped them perform better.
And it’s not like they were a huge fan of him.
Some of them said they thought they would dislike the music, but it actually helped them with their tasks.
In the near future, you may be able to improve your emotional wellbeing by using some kind of advanced wearable technology — such as your smart watch or headphones — which is able to recommend songs based on how your body responds to them.
Jessica Sharmin Rahman is a PhD candidate in the School of Computing at the Australian National University.
This is an edited version of her Ockham’s Razor talk on ABC RN.