How Emotion Affects Learning — and Why That’s Great for Musicians

+ Combine theory, improvisation, and jazzy hip-hop, and improve your piano chops with Grammy-winner Kiefer in Kiefer: Keys, Chords, & Beats.

On the whole, musicians tend to be notoriously emotional… There’s no shortage of examples of this that can be found throughout history.

Renowned 20th century composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his “Symphony No. 7” as a sort of beacon of hope during wartime; Luciano Pavarotti pretty much brought entire concert halls to tears every time he belted out a rendition of “Nessun Dorma;” and an infinite number of iconic rock, R&B, soul, and country ballads tell the infinite stories of heartache and sadness.

Our emotions aren’t at war with our intellect, and shouldn’t be considered distractions. In fact, they have the power to directly impact various aspects of everyday life, for the better! As musicians, we should take the time to understand how our emotional states are connected to our brain function, so we can utilize them in productive ways.

Specifically today, I want to talk about how emotions affect our ability to learn, and our aptitude for new information. The connection between emotion and learning is of profound importance for creative types, as we’re constantly looking for ways to elevate our skills and expand our catalog.

The Fascinating Process of Learning

It’s commonly known that learning an instrument can actually make you a better songwriter; as the process of skills development opens you up to new imaginative possibilities, and gives you a wider perspective on the interplay between melody, harmony, and chords — as well as more practiced hand-eye coordination.

No matter where you are in your career, you’re likely to see similar benefits from the simple act of learning something new, whether or not it’s related to music.

In the same way, emotion and learning are intrinsically connected. Negative experiences, for instance, may have a profound impact on our future well-being, including the ability to learn. According to studies, long-term stress and anxiety can fundamentally change our brain structure, impacting memory, creativity, and the ability to concentrate, which we rely on every day.

Yet, there’s also research that suggests that when properly processed and compartmentalized, either through therapy or creative ideation approaches, embracing negative emotions in a healthy way can lead to major creative breakthroughs.

So it isn’t all bad new for those of us who may have lived through a traumatic event. Our brains are highly adaptable organs with the ability to create new pathways, and even rebuild, based on learning experiences. Unsurprisingly, the music we love may just hold the key to keeping our brains healthy and our negative emotions in check.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “What Makes a Song ‘Catchy?’”

Music, Emotions, and Brain Health

Emotion and music tend to enjoy a harmonious, symbiotic relationship. Even the simple act of listening to music has numerous benefits, to say nothing of the creative composition process. But how does it work?

Music is thought to activate our dopamine receptors, one of the neurotransmitters associated with the sensation of reward, and satisfaction.

Listening to our favorite songs also helps stimulate the brain, improve memory, and increase our desire to learn, according to Healthline. When we’re already in the act of practicing, rehearsing, and learning new musical skills or new songs to play, it may actually help our grasp of the material if we listen to music that triggers an emotional response. Consider putting together a playlist of your favorite songs and see what happens!

Furthermore, music has been shown to help slow cognitive decline among patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia. And there’s still much that we don’t fully understand about the possibilities for music-based therapy and treatment, and research into the cognitive benefits of music is ongoing.

As for emotion and learning, neuroscientists believe that the human experience is primarily guided by five so-called “primary” emotions: Anger, fear, disgust, sadness, and joy. While it’s certainly curious that the bulk of our primary emotions aren’t necessarily desirable, you can’t deny that musicians are frequently inspired by sorrow and/or longing. Perhaps that’s why we like sad music so much.

From Happy to Hurt: Examples of Emotion in Music

In musician speak, in fact, “emotional” is generally synonymous with “sad,” a common ingredient in contemporary songwriting. According to a 2013 Rolling Stone reader’s poll, the saddest songs ever written don’t shy away from their grim subject matter, with crooners such as John Prine and Eddie Vedder lamenting what was never to be. Sorrowful titles abound on the list, from “Tears in Heaven” to “Everybody Hurts.”

+ Read more on Flypaper: “What Is the Saddest Chord Progression in the World?”

Fortunately, there’s no lack of upbeat music on modern digital airwaves: “Joy” is one of our primary emotions, after all. And it’s a good thing too, because we need upbeat, lively songs just as much as those that pull on our heartstrings. Upbeat music is an effective mood booster that also — you guessed it — helps prime your brain for learning.

If you’re short on inspiration, tap into your emotions. And never stop leaning into your emotional responses to music — especially when you’re learning — whether you’re tapping into a new genre or picking up a guitar for the first time.

By stretching your brain muscles, you may just increase your artistic output and expand your musical horizons.

Don’t stop here!

Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, recording and production, composing, beat making, and more on Soundfly, with artist-led courses by Ryan Lott, Com TruiseJlinKiefer, and Kimbra: Vocal Creativity, Arranging, & Production.

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