Psychology Behind Lyrics

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.”

– Victor Hugo.

But what music really is without words? While music reflects our deepest emotions, lyrics convey them to us, literally!

Pyschology Behind Lyrics: A kid listening to music

More often than not, do we get attached to the lyrics and find meanings hidden in them as per our circumstances. These lyrics make us feel understood and they are a form of seeking catharsis (i.e., releasing strong, repressed emotions) for some of us too. 

Psychology of Song Preferences

What if I told you there is a bit of mind science behind the lyrics? If I told you certain songs tug at the strings of your heart more than others?

It might sound uncanny to some, but your music preferences, to a great extent, are influenced by your personality. 

Social factors play a more prominent role when it comes to preferences. For example, Pop music is likely to be preferred by extroverts, whereas introverts are known to prefer Rock or heavy metal. People who fancy rap and hip-hop are seen to exhibit high self-esteem as a character but on the contrary, those who prefer indie music are seen to show low self-esteem. 

Another factor is the cognitive style (i.e., how your brain processes information). People are commonly known to have one of the three cognitive styles.

  1. Empathizers or Type E: These people assign more consideration to others’ thoughts and feelings. They prefer songs of low energy with emotional depth, which invoke emotional responses like soft rock and especially, sad songs. 
  2. Systemizers or Type S: They are analytic people who prefer the music of complex structures like heavy metal or classical music. 
  3. Balanced or Type B: The balanced type shows a broader spectrum of music preferences.

Research has proven that familiarity of songs along with their ability to relate with our thoughts and memories, irrespective of genre, also creates preferences. Memories around music have strong emotional centers. The music draws familiarity from our explicit memory which is our conscious part of the memory. The more familiar you’re with a song, the more intense the feelings will be.

Psychology Behind Lyrics: Girl surrounded by neon music instruments

Why does music move us?

Now that you have realized why you prefer what you do, wondered why they have an impact on you?

Music has a history as old as humans itself. According to many theories of evolution, music has been a major part of human communication. It has been used to intimidate enemies and in sexual arousal and courtship as well. Subsequently, it suggests that human brains have gone through an evolution in a sense where music has become a part of our being.

While music accompanied by lyrics could have been a bunch of sounds and words, our brain structures them and gives them meaning. This feeling, in turn, releases dopamine in our brain. Dopamine is the same chemical that is released during sex and alcohol consumption. When we listen to music, it results in a blood surge to our paralimbic system, a system associated with our emotions, thus, activating it. Along with the paralimbic system, it also stimulates the cerebellum, an area of motor control of our body. Consequently, this music also makes us want to get up and dance, at times. 

Psychology Behind Lyrics: Girl Dancing with music

Well-being and lyrics

When going through tough times, we all confide in people and music. Music has long been our partner in life. Listening to sad songs can make you feel being heard and provide a sense of support. There are many prosocial songs out there and listening to them can influence the way you interpret the world and thus, how you act in it. Hence, it’s proven that music can increase our well-being. Fun fact: Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’ mirrors certain aspects of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT (It’s a therapeutic technique used by psychologists to change thinking patterns). 

Lyrics writing as well has been used by psychologists as a form of therapy. Albeit not easy, song-writing serves as a form of self-expression of complex emotions and grieves. This is used to develop healthy coping mechanisms. 

On the contrary, in history, music has also been used to torture people. As music is known to manipulate people without consent, it had been used by the Nazi regime in Chile, by the British Military in Greece and the American government in Guantanamo Bay (one of the most controversial prisons of the world) to torture victims. It can be in the form of playing loud music for days at a frequency higher than normal human hearing. This is called sonic warfare. This can even kill people as well as use it to turn it into psychological warfare as done by the US army.

On a subtler note, with the increasing culture of pop music, lyrics have been sending degrading and self-harming messages. Such lyrics have a growing emphasis on drugs, sex, and alcohol. This constant repetition has been enforcing our behavior to take a similar tune as humans always mimic others’ behavior for conformity. This can also be attributed to the increasing rape culture as such songs emphasize that ‘No’ really just means ‘Come and take it.’ 

Psychology Behind Lyrics: Taylor Swift's Reputation

What makes a song catchy?

The answer is repetition and familiarity. 

With millions of songs out there, only a few get successful and the reason is their repetitive phrases. Most catchy songs have a hook i.e., a catchy phrase or passage which keeps the listeners hooked on. When listening to such songs, most of us might not remember the entire song but we would remember that catchy phrase. Such phrases are repeated to get embedded in our memories and once that happens a song is likely to get popular. What also really adds on is the simplicity of such sentences as they are always easy to remember. For example, “We will, we will rock you!” is one of those phrases you all know irrespective of how many times you have heard the song or whether you liked it or not. 

Most popular songs showcase a familiarity in the composition of their tunes. The similarities are not concrete but rather, they impact us on an unconscious level. Another factor could be the ability to invoke certain emotional responses. A lot of songs have certain sections where lyrics and music hit an exact point that triggers our emotions. Such segments are what make a song memorable for people and hence, catchy. 

A lot of thought and effort goes into the songs we hear then we could have imagined but I guess, that adds on to the beauty of it. 

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Also, check out our article on Music Listening: Then and Now

Khushboo Mohan
Khushboo Mohan

I write prose to beat the rigidity of poems. Author to many incomplete novels. An amateur writer, at best, with a flair for psychology, politics and everything that doesn’t make sense.

Khushboo is an intern via Escribo. Reach her on Instagram.

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