Psychology of Music and Its affects on
Behavior, Intelligence, Learning, Pain and Health

Studies indicate that music can have profound physical and psychological effects not only on people but also on animals and plants.  Research into the effects of music on behavior, intelligence, learning, pain tolerance and health have generated a number of interesting findings. This article describes the results of some of the more intriguing experiments and studies.


Neurochemical Sound Byte

Music, Mice and Madness

David Merrill, a student, devised an experiment to discover how music would affect the ability of mice to learn new things. Merrill had one group of mice listen to classical music 24 hours a day and another to heavy metal music. He then timed the mice as they ran through mazes to see if the music affected their speed of learning. Unfortunately, he had to cut the first experiment short because the heavy metal mice all killed one another. In a second experiment, mice that listened to Mozart for 10 hours a day dramatically improved their maze-solving abilities, while the heavy metal mice actually became worse at solving mazes than they had been at the beginning of the experiment.


Music, Intelligence and Learning

According to the Association for Psychological Science, intelligence test scores grew higher in children who took lessons in keyboarding or singing. In another study, boys between the ages of 6 and 15 who took music lessons scored higher on tests of verbal memory than a control group of students without musical training.


Music and Pain Reduction

Researchers found that patients who listened to harp, piano, synthesizer, orchestra or slow jazz experienced less post-surgical pain than those who did not.


Music Therapy and Autism

Music therapy is particularly helpful for autistic students, who have difficulty interacting with classmates and teachers and become agitated in noisy, changeable environments. Autistic students respond very well to music therapy, which can be used to help them remain calm under stress and socialize more effectively. In addition, many autistic children have spectacular music skills.


Music and Violence

In a study of university students, participants listened to seven songs with violent lyrics, while a control group listened to seven songs without violent lyrics by the same artists. Afterwards, when asked to classify words as violent or nonviolent, those who had listened to violent lyrics were more likely to ascribe aggressive meanings to words such as “rock” and “stick.” The American Psychological Society has also published a report stating that research has definitively proved the link between youth violence and violent media, including music.


Music and Suicide

On a stranger note, sociology professor James Gundlach found higher rates of suicide among those who listen to country music. However, Gundlach notes that the suicide link occurred only with older country music, which he believes is not as upbeat as today’s.


Plants and Music

Experiments conducted by Dorothy Retallack to learn about music’s effects on plants are described in her 1973 book The Sound of Music and Plants. Retallack played rock music (Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Vanilla Fudge) for one group of plants and jazz for another. When two weeks had passed, the jazz plants were healthy and bent toward the radio. The rock music plants grew very tall and droopy, with faded blooms, and most had died within 16 days.

Retallack tried other types of music, including country, to which the plants showed no reaction, and modern (discordant) classical music, which caused the plants to bend away from the speaker. The plants seemed to “like” Bach and North Indian sitar and tabla music.

Other people have conducted similar experiments, and some claim to have achieved similar results. However, Retallack has been criticized for using unscientific methods in her experiments.

Most music studies to date have used small sample sizes and some have not controlled for confounding variables, so although these findings are compelling, more research is required. However, given that many studies have generated similar results for certain types of music, the psychology of music is certainly worthy of further exploration.


Further Reading

Classical Music
Heavy Metal Music



  • American Psychological Society. (18 August 2004). “New Research Provides the First Solid Evidence that the Study of Music Promotes Intellectual Development.”
  • Chalker-Scott, L. (n.d.) “The Myth of Absolute Science: If it’s published, it must be true.” Puyallup Research and Extension Center, Washington State University.
  • McDermott, K. (2001). “Music, Relaxation Can Complement Pain Medicine.”
  • Reuters: ABC News Online. (3 October 2004). “Country Music-Suicide Study Tops IgNobel Awards.”
  • Robertson, D. (2000). “About Positive Music.”
  • Science Daily. (28 July 2003). “Music Instruction Aids Verbal Memory.” Story adapted from a news release issued by the American Psychological Association.
  • Science Daily. (10 May 1999). “Relaxation And Music Significantly Reduce Patients’ Postoperative Pain.” Original source: NIC – National Institute of Nursing Research.
  • Science Daily. (26 March 2004). “Report Shows ‘Unequivocal Evidence’ That Media Violence Has Significant Negative Impact On Children.” Story adapted from a news release issued by the American Psychological Association.
  • Science Daily. (5 May 2003). “Violent Music Lyrics Increase Aggressive Thoughts And Feelings, According To New Study; Even Humorous Violent Songs Increase Hostile Feelings.” Story adapted from a news release issued by the American Psychological Association.
  • Staum, M.J. (2004). “Music Therapy and Language for the Autistic Child.”
  • Wertz, M., the Schiller Institute. (17 February 1998). “Why Classical Music Is the Key to Education” in “Towards A New Renaissance in Classical Education.”
Much of the research into the emotional and behavioral effects of popular music has focused on heavy metal, though a few studies have also included rock and grunge music. Overall, the popular belief that listening to certain musical styles causes a variety of behavioral problems is not supported.

Emotional Response

While a number of researchers have associated heavy metal music with depression or anger, these effects do not usually occur when heavy metal is the listener’s musical preference. A study of more than 1,000 gifted students aged 11-18 found that heavy metal music is used for cathartic release and to dissipate negative emotions, particularly among those with low self-esteem (ScienceDaily, 22 March 2007).

Grunge Music Effects

A study of the effects of different types of music found that after listening to grunge music, subjects reported increases in fatigue, tension, sadness and hostility, as well as decreased mental clarity, vigor, relaxation and compassion. However, grunge was likely not the musical preference of these subjects—a study of grunge fans might have produced different results (Kemper & Danhauer, 2005).



Some studies have found that individuals become more hostile, aggressive or angry after listening to heavy metal music, whereas others have found no aggressive response. Some researchers have even found that subjects who were angry to begin with become happier, calmer and more relaxed after listening to heavy metal when it is their preferred musical genre.



Although the suicide rate is higher than average among rock and heavy metal fans (particularly the latter), a study of students with psychiatric disorders who were also heavy metal fans actually showed improved mood after listening to their music of choice (Wooten, 1992). Other studies of depressed young people have found similar results, suggesting that some people may prefer heavy metal music because they are depressed or even use it to treat their depression in certain cases, rather than becoming depressed as a result of listening to it.


Academic Performance

Some studies have found that adolescents of both genders who listen to heavy metal tend to have lower grades in school. However, this is likely due to aspects of personality or environment (such as high stress) rather than any direct effects of the music itself, given that most low-performing heavy metal fans experienced academic problems before they began listening to heavy metal music (Took & Weiss, 1994).



College students whose musical preferences are alternative, rock or heavy metal actually obtain higher IQ test scores on average, particularly on questions where abstraction is required (Walker & Kreiner, 2006).

Sacred Geometry

Risk Taking

According to Becknell et al. (2008), those who prefer rock or heavy metal music are more inclined to be reckless sensation seekers who take risks. This is a personality type rather than a direct effect of the music—sensation seekers have less reactive nervous systems and so it takes more intense stimuli to generate a sensation of happiness or excitement.

Risk takers are more likely to commit crimes because they are not as anxious about the consequences. This is not caused by the music however; the risk taker prefers more energetic music and more dangerous pastimes as a result of innate personality and physiology (McNamara & Ballard, 1999).

It is also worth noting that the majority of heavy metal fans are adolescent males, a demographic with the highest prevalence of criminal activity and antisocial behaviour, regardless of musical preference. Therefore, higher rates of problem behaviour are probably attributable to gender and age rather than musical influence (Took & Weiss, 1994).


Drug Use

Studies regarding a link between heavy metal music and drug use have generated mixed results. One study found that teenagers who listened to heavy metal were more inclined to use drugs, though they were not more likely to use them excessively or become addicted (Arnett, 1991). Other researchers have found no link between music preference and drug use or drug-related values (McNamara & Ballard, 1999). Overall, use of alcohol and/or drugs by parents has the greatest influence on adolescent drug use (Farrell & Strang, 1991).

Attitudes Toward Women

A study of undergraduate men found that exposure to heavy metal music (both sexually violent heavy metal and Christian heavy metal) increased the tendency to stereotype sex roles and hold more negative perceptions of women (Lawrence & Joyner, 1991).

Effect on Animals

A student named David Merrill subjected mice to the music of a heavy metal band called Anthrax 24-hours a day to discover how it would affect their ability to learn new things, but instead of completing Merrill’s maze, the heavy metal mice all killed one another.

In a subsequent experiment in which the mice listened to heavy metal music for 10 hours each day, they did not become homicidal, but they did grow worse at solving the maze than they had been when they first encountered it (Schiller Institute, 17 February 1998). But research indicates that reactions to music are shaped by whether or not it is the genre of choice, and it’s highly unlikely that if the mice had a musical preference at all, it would have been Anthrax.

Effect on Plants

Dorothy Retallack tested the effects of various types of music on plants. She found that playing classic rock artists such as Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Vanilla Fudge caused the plants to grow in an unhealthy way, bend away from the speakers and die young. However, if we assume that plants can have musical preferences, it’s possible that classic rock was not their music of choice (Robertson, 2000).

Further Information

For more information on music psychology, please see The Psychology of Classical MusicThe Psychology of Music and Rap Music’s Psychological Effects.


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  • Farrell, M., & Strang, J. (1991). “Substance use and misuse in childhood and adolescence.” Journal of Child Psychology, 32, 109-128.
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  • Lawrence, J.S., & Joyner, D.J. (1991). “The effects of sexually violent rock music on males’ acceptance of violence against women.” Psychology of Women Quarterly, 15(1), 49-63.
  • McNamara, L., & Ballard, M.E. (1999). “Resting arousal, sensation seeking, and music preference” [HTML Version]. Genetic, Social & General Psychology Monographs, 125(3).
  • Robertson, D. (2000). “About Positive Music.”
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  • Schiller Institute. (17 February 1998). “Towards a new renaissance in classical education.”
  • (22 March 2007). “Gifted students beat the blues with heavy metal.”
  • Took, K. J., & Weiss, D. S. (1994). “The relationship between heavy metal and rap music and adolescent turmoil: Real or artifact?: Adolescence, 29, 613-623.
  • Walker, K., & Kreiner, D.S. (2006). “Relationships of music preferences with perceived intelligence, measured intelligence, and mood state.” 18th Annual Conference of the Association for Psychological Science. New York, New York.
  • Wanamaker, C.E., & Reznikoff, M. (1989). “Effects of aggressive and nonaggressive rock songs on projective and structured tests.” Journal of Psychology, 123(6), 561.
  • Wooten, M. A. (1992). “The effects of heavy metal music on affect shifts of adolescents in an inpatient psychiatric setting.” Music Therapy Perspectives, 10, 93-98.