How Music Affects Society


Music is an essential aspect of human civilizations and has the power to emotionally, morally, and culturally affect society. It plays a critical role in facilitating social bonding, dismantling walls and boundaries, promoting peace and reconciliation, and educating people about other ways of life. It also has a significant economic impact and is widely used as a medium for self-expression, entertainment, and spiritual fulfillment.

The way that we perceive a series of sounds as music is incredibly complex. Silbersweig and his BWH psychiatry colleague Samata Sharma, MD, explain that sound waves enter the ear, striking the eardrum and converting vibrations into electric signals that travel by sensory nerves to the brainstem—the brain’s message relay station for auditory information—and then disperse to activate many areas of the brain. This is how the brain turns a sequence of notes into a melody and harmony, rhythm and tempo, the sense of familiarity or the surprise factor—the “Louie Louie” effect—and other musical qualities.

These musical experiences are rooted in our evolutionary past. Our ancestors lived in arboreal environments, where they would have been dependent on acoustic communication to coordinate group activities, reinforce social bonds, resolve animosities, and establish stable hierarchies of submission and dominance. Moreover, these early acoustic communicators would have needed to convey shades of emotion through the melodic character of emitted sounds, as well as to communicate important information about the environment in which they lived and hunted.

In modern times, we continue to use music for the same purposes and can appreciate its influence on culture and society. We can learn a lot about a society by its music, such as the songs of the Civil Rights movement, which gave voice to injustices and empowered people to stand up for their rights. These musical works were a catalyst for societal change, helping to break down barriers, educate people about their fellow citizens, and build empathy between people across the divide.

To gain a deeper appreciation for the nuances of music, try listening to a piece of classical music with the intention of noticing variations in timbre and texture. For example, Beethoven’s transformation of an elegant melody into a mysterious version of itself in the slow movement of String Quartet No 9 is an excellent example. Another example occurs at the close of Debussy’s ‘Clouds,’ where a fragment of melody that had returned unchanged throughout the work suddenly splits into pieces and disappears, almost as if it had been an illusion.

Additionally, listen to a variety of genres of music—rock and roll, Rhythm and Blues, Blues, Hip Hop, Jazz, Classical, Folk, Country, Pop, Heavy Metal, Psychedelia, and others—and ask yourself how these different styles can work together to create unique musical expressions. Keep in mind, however, that it is perfectly acceptable to like what you enjoy and not force yourself to listen to anything else for the sake of “critical analysis.” You might find that once you do, it doesn’t take long for your enjoyment to fade.