Emotional Wellness

A curated list of books written about the impact of music on human emotions.

“Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” – Berthold Auerbach 

Music is amazing. It has the power to sweep us up with feelings of love, anger, sorrow, or joy. It can awaken passion, generate excitement, and remind us of our past. And yet, we still don’t really fully understand what it does to us, or why it does things to us. We don’t even completely know why it even exists!

Here is a collection of books that address the impact that music has on the brains, emotions, and psychology of us humans. Some of these are fun to read; some are more scholarly and serious-minded; some are just plain silly. But, they all say something about what music is, what it does, and why we love it so much.  Also, if any of you have read a book that you’d like to see added to this list, by all means let me know! I’d love to read it. Shoot me an email at Jonathon.novello@hc.msu.edu and I will take a look and probably add it here.


Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks. 

Oliver Sacks explores the place music occupies in the brain and how it affects the human condition. In Musicophilia, he shows us a variety of what he calls “musical misalignments.” Among them: a man struck by lightning who suddenly desires to become a pianist at the age of forty-two; an entire group of children with Williams syndrome, who are hypermusical from birth; people with “amusia,” to whom a symphony sounds like the clattering of pots and pans; and a man whose memory spans only seven seconds-for everything but music.

From Jon: This is a fascinating book, and it highlights how powerful and unique music seems to be to humans. It really made me reflect on what music means to me, and how lucky we seem to be that most of our brains our wired to experience music, and what it would be like to not have that.


The Music Instinct: How Music Works, and Why We Can’t Do Without It, by Philip Ball.

A comprehensive, accessible survey of what is known--and still unknown--about how music works it’s magic, and why, as much as eating and sleeping, it seems indispensable to humanity. Deftly weaving together the latest findings in brain science with history, mathematics, and philosophy, The Music Instinct not only deepens our appreciation of the music we love, but shows that we would not be ourselves without it.

From Jon: This really just breaks down what music is, as far as we can understand it at this point. It’s pretty interesting, and it presents all of the most recent research on where music may have come from, what it’s purpose may be from an evolutionary standpoint, how our brains process different aspects of music, and what it does to us emotionally, psychologically, and physically.


Music and Mind in Everyday Life, by Eric Clarke, Nicola Dibben, and Stephanie Pitts.

The authors here use psychology to understand musical behavior and experience in a range of circumstances, including composing and performing, listening and persuading, and teaching and learning. Starting from 'real world' examples of musical experiences, it critically examines the ways in which psychology can explain people's diverse experience of, and engagement with music, focusing on how music is used, acquired, and made in a range of familiar musical contexts. Using a framework of real and imagined musical scenarios, the book draws on a wide range of research in the psychology of music and music education.

The book is organized into three central sections. In "Making Music," it tackles the psychology of playing, improvising, and composing music, understood as closely related and integrated activities. In Using Music the authors address the ways in which people listen to music, manage their emotions, moods, and identities with music, and use music for therapy, persuasion and social control. In "Acquiring Music," they consider music in human development, and in a range of more formal and informal educational contexts. The final chapter provides an overview of the history and preoccupations of music psychology as a discipline, and concludes with some remarks on the wider significance of music psychology for an understanding of human subjectivity.

From Jon: This one is very, very scholarly, but it really is a great read if you like that sort of thing.


Why Music Moves Us, by Jeanette Bicknell.

Music has extraordinary power to move us, but how and why does it affect us? What is going on, emotionally, physically and cognitively when listeners have strong emotional responses to music? This is a highly readable, original and philosophically important book for anyone who has ever been moved by music.

From Jon: This one is pretty heady as well, but it does a great job of really exploring what’s happening to us when we just listen to music that moves us. The discussion about the importance of music to humans and what we use it for was especially intriguing to me.


Your Playlist Can Change Your Life, by Salina Mindlin, Don Durousseau, and Joseph Cardillo.

Maybe you blast the speakers when you need to get pumped up. If that's all you do, though, you're not taking full advantage of the way music can help you. Listen to a slower track first and the one-two punch of the playlist can push you even higher. Overflowing with easy-to-use tips like these, Your Playlist Can Change Your Life is the first book to offer scientifically proven methods for using your favorite music to enhance your life.

From Jon: Ok, this is kind of a cheesy book, but the ideas behind it (while it could have been summed up in a few short chapters and not really a whole book) are interesting and certainly work. I’m not really sure about the “scientifically proven methods” that they authors espouse, though, having read the book. Honestly, you could probably just glance through the thing in a bookstore and get the jist.


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