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How Does Music Influence Human Behavior?

Updated on August 17, 2014

Frank Zappa at PMRC Senate Hearing

Frank Zappa testifying during a September 19th, 1985 US Senate hearing concerning the lyrics and content of music.
Frank Zappa testifying during a September 19th, 1985 US Senate hearing concerning the lyrics and content of music. | Source

Is Music To Blame For Bad Behavior?

Back on April 20th, 1999 during the Columbine High School shooting perpetrated by Dylan Klebold & Eric Harris, much discussion centered on the role that music played. Artists such as Marilyn Manson, Rammstien & KMFDM were held as partly accountable for the murders. One newspaper headline even read: "Devil-Worshipping Maniac Told Kids To Kill" which linked Manson's music as a primarily motivator.

During the 1980s it was not unusual for the finger of blame to be pointed at hard rock and metal bands such as AC/DC & Judas Priest. There were also the well published Senate hearings back in August 1985 which investigated the effect that explicit musical content was having on American youth.

Also back in 1968, Charles Manson felt that The Beatles "White Album" and specifically the song "Helter Skelter" was written in secret code and it was used as a basis to concoct and carry out his evil plans.

These are just a few examples of how music has been linked unfavorably with human behavior. So this raises the question: does music influence human behavior? If so, then to what extent does it?

Marilyn Manson Made Me Do It

Revisiting Columbine for a moment, it is good to note that it was later reported that Harris & Klebold were not even fans of Marilyn Manson's music. Manson himself made the following quote about the situation: "The [news] media has unfairly scapegoated the music industry and so-called Goth kids and has speculated, with no basis in truth, that artists like myself are in some way to blame. This tragedy was a product of ignorance, hatred and an access to guns. I hope the [news] media's irresponsible finger-pointing doesn't create more discrimination against kids who look different."

Manson does present interesting arguments in highlighting the number of different factors that would have been involved. At the very least it would be a gross oversimplification to say that music was the main cause of this terrible tragedy. At the most, music and other forms of entertainment would have been symptoms of a much bigger illness.

Frank Zappa, who was an ardent critic of censorship and who was one of the witnesses during the 1985 Senate Hearing made the following statement concerning the link between music and behavior: “I wrote a song about dental floss but did anyone's teeth get cleaner?”

Concerning the link between Charles Manson & The Beatles, it doesn't take much research to establish that Manson was not exactly mentally stable. The Beatles sold over 30 million copies of The White Album worldwide. How many of those people that listened to it became serial killers?

As already touched upon it is a gross oversimplification to blame music for the ill behavior of society. A mentally stable individual is not going to murder someone or commit suicide because Marilyn Manson told them to.

That being said, does that mean that music does not have any influence on human behavior?

Marilyn Manson: Bowling For Columbine Interview (Video)


Adele, why do you have to make us cry?
Adele, why do you have to make us cry? | Source

Stop it Adele! You Are Making Me Cry

Even though it would be erroneous to blame music for society's bad behavior, that doesn't mean that music cannot have a powerful emotional impact on us. For example while listening to Adele's "Someone Like You" do you find yourself bawling like a baby. Well psychologists have a scientific explanation for that. Songs that are known for being tearjerkers (such as "Somebody Like You"), employ a music device known as appoggiatura. Appoggiatura is a musical note which clashes with the melody, which can create a tension within the listener. This in turn can produce goose bumps and even tears. So music can elicit an emotional reaction, and even influence emotional behavior such as crying.

Also there was another interesting study conducted by a team of psychologists from the University of Leicester in England, which highlights the fact that music can affect us on a subconscious level. The study discovered that background music can affect shopping habits. In response to the study the National Geographic made the following observations: “When French accordion music played, French wine outsold German varieties by a five-to-one ratio. But when German beer-hall music oompahed, buyers bought two bottles of German wine for every French bottle.” Of Interest only a few buyers were aware that “music played a role in their decision,” states one of the researchers. So it would appear that music does influence certain types of behavior on a subconscious level.

Somebody Like You by Adele (Video)

Like a Chocolate Bar to a Diabetic

Also concerning whether or not music can influence behavior I would like to relate my personal experience.

When I was going through my teenage years I struggled with anger and depression issues. I would even describe myself as borderline suicidal. I say borderline, because I never made any serious attempts, but I did write poetry that was in the guise of suicide letters, and I spent a lot of time thinking about death. Because of this I was attracted to music which was dark and angry. It is good to note that I was attracted to the music because of what I was feeling. Individuals such as Kurt Cobain & Trent Reznor were able to articulate how I was feeling. To a certain extent it served as an emotional outlet. I didn't have to abuse drugs, practice self mutilation or commit suicide because I could live vicariously through the music I listened to.

But eventually I did come to the point that feeding my heart and mind with negative thoughts was hindering my emotional development. If I kept feeding my mind of thoughts of suicide & self mutilation, would it have come to the point that living vicariously through the songs wouldn't be enough? I can't answer that. But I do know that I had to go through a period where I had to stop listening to certain artists and certain types of music. For me it was like giving a chocolate bar to a diabetic.

Now that I am relatively well adjusted I can now go back and listen to the music of my youth. It doesn't affect me the same way. If anything it serves as a poignant reminder of how far I have come. It reminds me that I don't want to revert back to being that angry and depressed teenager again.

So the point of all of this is to highlight that under certain situations music can influence certain types of behavior. But when individuals engage in destructive behavior, there is many more factors involve than just the music. At the most the music that someone listens to is a symptom of a greater problem. We need to address problems not symptoms.

It is not Marilyn Manson's fault.

Hurt by Nine Inch Nails (Video)

© 2012 CJ Baker


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    • profile image

      Overdose 4 years ago

      Unfortunately there is no definitive research results on this topic. I believe whole heartedly music has a large impact on human behavior and at the same time it is a symptom or at least indicates personality traits. If your values don't coincide with the lyrics why would you be drawn to it? I believe it reinforces the belief of what is to be considered socially acceptable behavior as well has a strong likelihood to accelerate extremity of socially unacceptable behavior. music is so very powerfull and i believe few recognize its full impact on individuals behaviors. I think therefore I am.

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for the read and the comment! Music can have a powerful emotional effect, but I agree it is erroneous to place the sole blame on music for destructive behavior.

    • Hendrika profile image

      Hendrika 4 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      I have to agree with you that music can influence our emotions, but I also agree that destructed behaviour cannot be result of music. I mean even good "classical" music sometimes have a profound effect on my emotions

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 5 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks James for the input. Glad you found it interesting.

    • James Lesnefsky profile image

      James Lesnefsky 5 years ago

      It was interesting to read about Appoggiatura. I love it when songs give me the chills, especially in the dead of summer. That's when you know it's powerful music.

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 5 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for your personal insights and kind comments, Techicated. Greatly appreciated.

    • Techicated profile image

      Kathryn Kutny 5 years ago from New York State

      Great hub! Yes, music does influence people. When I'm listening to love songs it makes me think of love and gets me thinking of romance. If I hear negative music when I'm feeling down, it just makes me more sad. So yes, music does influence us. Thanks again for a great hub :)

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 5 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for the read, comment, vote and share!

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 5 years ago from Arizona

      Very interesting hub. Enjoyed reading. Voting up and sharing.

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 5 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for your comment. Music can definitely work on a subconscious level.

    • profile image

      Headfullofsound 5 years ago

      I know FIRSTHAND that the music you hear in the mall, movie theater, whatever, can influence your perception on the music if not whatever you want to buy. My experience has been more along the lines of wanting to hear more music like what I'm already hearing. But by the time I've driven back home, I think to myself "What the hell was I thinking? That music is crap!" But in that environment, I guess it was used to its full potential.

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 5 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for reading and the kind words.

    • Tactfullyrude profile image

      Tactfullyrude 5 years ago from Idaho

      Such an informative and well written Hub. Thanks so much for sharing the link. It was a great read!!!! I am now a follower:)

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 5 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for your comments, they are greatly appreciated.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      You are so right, music does have an influence on behavior. Glad your past experience with the "darker" side of music has not left you scarred. Interesting read and good topic.

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 5 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for comments! I absolutely agree.

    • peeples profile image

      Peeples 5 years ago from South Carolina

      Great hub! Music can only play a factor when there are more deep issues already there.

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 5 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks! I'm glad you can relate. I agree that a lot do, but unfortunately we don't always feel comfortable articulating those feelings when we are in our teens.

    • Terwilliger profile image

      Terwilliger 5 years ago

      I love your personal experience. I went through these feelings myself, and I think a lot of teenagers do. Great article.

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 5 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks! It can be a definite circle and there are a number of factors involved.

    • Robert Erich profile image

      Robert Erich 5 years ago from California

      I can relate with you. I too, after I stopped listening to certain music, became much better off. I believe that it is a circle. As you mentioned, there are other issues as well. I feel depressed, I listen to music, which makes me more depressed, which makes me want to listen to more music...

      Interesting article. Voted up and shared.

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 5 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for the comments! Sorry for making you cry!

    • Barnsey profile image

      Barnsey 5 years ago from Happy Hunting Grounds

      Yeah, no doubt music does have a latent effect on our brains. I recall as a teen metalhead getting pumped up listening to Slayer while preparing for a fight or a concert. It put me in the right mindset to deal with violent situations. Great points and no fair with the videos and the making me cry bit, ok?

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 5 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks! You are right, there is a lack of support system, and there is a number of other factors involved. It is a gross oversimplification to blame music.

    • Stacie L profile image

      Stacie L 5 years ago

      Music has some influence and I suppose someone who has an addictive personality or is easily influenced may succumb to the lyrics from these so called "artists." A strong support system is missing from many people that commit crimes that are blamed on the music.

      Good hub.

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 5 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for the kind comments.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 5 years ago from southern USA

      I am so glad you are doing well now. I believe music affects our emotions for sure, but negative words and images can get into our minds, as false imaginations. Interesting question. In His Love, Faith Reaper