Home All Sing A Song

Sing A Song

written by Aren Cohen 13 July 2011

Aren Cohen, MBA, MAPP '07 is a learning specialist working with academically, motivationally and emotionally challenged students in the leading private schools in New York City. As shown in her website and blog, Strengths for Students, Aren uses the tenets of positive psychology to teach her students to use their strengths of character to change educational challenges into educational triumphs. Full bio. Aren's articles are here.

When I was studying Positive Psychology, one of the first assignments was to devise a personal positive intervention. For me, this was simple. I took out my iPod, put on my favorite playlist, and went for a long walk in the park. I was happy.

It was around that time that my father said something to me that has endured, “The songs are your friends.” Indeed, things may come and go, but often music is a constant, reminding us of specific times in our lives. Music, unlike other modes of communication, often speaks to us with a great emotional resonance. Why?

Your Brain on Music

Perhaps one of the best books written on the subject of psychology and music is This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin. I read the book about three years ago, and while many of the fun trivial facts stayed with me, many of the details did not. I remember being particularly struck by the notion that to become an expert musician one has to practice 10,000 hours. My husband, who decided to learn the piano, guitar, and percussion within the last eight years, has been working hard to meet that goal. However, when one considers that 10,000 is the equivalent of practicing twenty hours a week for ten years (per instrument!) he still has a ways to go. Nonetheless, it is fun listening as he improves daily.

Music and Movement

Levitin’s book is not light reading. It covers many details about the structure both of music and of cognitive neuroscience. Nonetheless, it is eye opening. He talks a lot about the cerebellum, an area of the brain connected with movement, as being essential for encoding music cognitively and emotionally. Since movement is so tied with music, it is not surprising that generally speaking we all like music with a great “groove” or rhythm.

As a result, I was surprised recently when I went to an Earth, Wind and Fire concert. First, I was fascinated by the demographics of the audience. As someone under the age of 40, I was one of the younger people there. While I was ready to bounce out of my seat and start dancing the moment the concert began, I was shocked that for most of the first half, few people in the audience were dancing. Why weren’t these people grooving to Boogie Wonderland??

Music as an Escape?

As an academic coach, I work with many junior high school students. Not too long ago, one of my 8th grade students, Elizabeth, introduced me to a song by the band JTX called Love In America. The song has a great groove, but what I like best is the lyric, “We’ll do it like Madonna in ’85.”

This became particularly prescient a few weeks later. I had been looking through Elizabeth’s notebooks and noticed that rather than taking notes about the Industrial Revolution, she had written the lyrics to Katy Perry’s Firework in the margins of her pages. I was amused. About two days before, I had had to locate my 8th grade Spanish textbook to brush up for one of my lessons. There in the margins were the lyrics to Madonna’s Like a Virgin. I realized as much as I wanted to reprimand Elizabeth for not paying attention in class, at the same age I had done the exact same thing.

Music of Our Teen Years

Recently, a lovely article called “Forever Young: In Some Ways, Yes,” was published in the New York Times celebrating Bob Dylan and all the musicians who are turning 70 in the years 2010-2012. Along with Dylan are greats like John Lennon, Joan Baez, Paul Simon, George Clinton, Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, and Carole King. Also included in this illustrious group would have been Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia.

Why is this notable? Well, just like Elizabeth enjoying Katy Perry or my defacing my textbook with Madonna, these musical greats were listening to the groundbreaking music of Elvis Presley in 1955-1956. There can be no doubt that this influenced their musical tastes and expressions. Equally, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, and Bruce Springsteen were all 14 when the Beatles arrived on the American scene in 1964. In all likelihood American musical history would not have been the same had these significant musical events not correlated with the early adolescence of later prominent musicians.

Levitin is not only quoted in the New York Times article, but also discusses this specific topic in his book. Apparently, teen years are “the turning point for musical preferences.” Levitin suggests that the reason for this is that adolescence is a time of self-discovery rich with highly emotional experience. For the specific reason that emotions are at the forefront, not only our cerebellum, but also our amygdala and neurotransmitters tag the songs of our adolescence as particularly important, marking them with potent nostalgic tags for later life. Now I understand why, every time I hear The Police’s Roxanne, the first memory that pops into my head is my summer camp boyfriend trying to convince me not to go work on my art project by altering the lyrics to the song and singing, “Arrrrrren, you don’t have to weave that scarf tonight.” Inevitably, it leads to a smile.

Returning to the Earth, Wind & Fire concert for a moment, I think both the performers and I were very relieved when the audience finally stood up and started “getting down.” Finally these people had tapped into their inner 1970’s teens and were dancing with memories of Shining Star. Earth Wind & Fire, a band formed in 1970, predates my adolescence. In fact, when Philip Bailey, the lead singer, commented that now they would sing some of their “baby-making songs,” I realized that there was a chance I was one of the babies made by one of their songs. (Even more interesting is that according to research in Levitin’s book, if my mother had listened to Earth Wind & Fire while I was in utero, that maybe part of what accounts for my affinity for their music.)

Is Music Positive Psychology?

It is a question I have been pondering since I was first a student of positive psychology. While there are thousands of songs that make me smile, laugh, or dance, equally there are others, like Pomp and Circumstance at a graduation, that bring tears to my eyes. Yet just because a song may trigger emotions besides happiness, does that make it any less “positive psychology?’ I think not. Anything that makes us feel deeply has an important and significant use in helping us understand ourselves. Equally, going back to the notion that “Songs are our friends,” the sadness a song evokes is often counterbalanced with a sense of solace, as its familiarity allows it to soothe as it is stirs.

Finally, music is not a solitary thing. Musical tastes not only become a mark of personal identity, but they also help create social bonding and cohesion. Hence most 14 year-olds tend to like the same music, and there is something comforting when one goes to church and hears the same hymns. Elaine O’Brien investigated some of the power and potential of the collective nature of music in her article American Roots Music: Building Positive Communities Through Music Appreciation.

The title of this article is taken from an Earth, Wind & Fire song, but perhaps others recognize it as a song from Sesame Street. In my opinion, if anyone knows positive psychology, it is the Muppets. However, while singing may cheer us up, my sense is that a real understanding of how to harness the power of music in the service of positive psychology is still in its most nascent stage. While many of my articles on Positive Psychology News Daily reference specific songs, it is because I often find music is a great way for me to access my creative juices so I can figure out what I want to say. Music is indeed both primal and powerful, thus the potential it has to serve positive psychology is awesome.

So, on that note, I close with the assertion that I firmly agree with both Shakespeare and Earth, Wind & Fire, who respectively remind us that “If music be the food of love, play on,” and music has the potential to help us, “Stay young at heart.”


Hajdu, D. (2011, May 24). Forever young? In some ways, yes.. The New York Times, p. A29.

Levitin, D. J. (2007). This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. New York: Plume Books

O’Brien, E. (2011, March 31). American roots music: building positive communities through music appreciation. Positive Psychology News.


Happy Headphones courtesy of Anita Hart

Earth, Wind & Fire at the Beacon courtesy of Andre Gustavus – used with permission

Margin Notes courtesy of Aren Cohen Gustavus – used with permission

Carole King courtesy of Andre Gustavus – used with permission

Spiral Galaxy courtesy of Patrick Hoesly

Kermit The Frog courtesy of kevygee

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

You may also like


Sarah 13 July 2011 - 4:53 pm

I truly believe that music can put your mind in a positive place. There have been times where I’ve been in a funk, and turning on music snaps me out of it right a way.

Senia 13 July 2011 - 5:30 pm


I love the paragraph about you and Elizabeth and you both writing in the lines of your schoolwork.

So much fun to feel the songs as you describe them. Neat research about adolescence and music tastes and the amygdala and other brain areas “tagging” the music.
“Arrrrren, you don’t have to weave that scarf tonight…!”


Robert 13 July 2011 - 6:24 pm

Hi Aren
John Lennon, who was born in 1940, is not turning 70 in the years 2010-12 along with those other greats mentioned in the New York Times article you cited.
John Lennon died in 1980.
He died in New York.

Aren cohen 13 July 2011 - 7:01 pm

Hi Sarah, Hi Senia,

Thanks so much for the nice feedback. Sarah, what songs get you out of a funk. List a few and let’s see if we can guess when you were fourteen. (Or can you trick us??)

Senia, yes, the Elizabeth story is a great one, and it was a terrific “A-ha” moment for me. Having seen it in myself made me realize that it wasn’t willful behavior or a symptom of the dreaded “attention-deficit disorder” on Elizabeth’s part. Enjoying music, and especially enjoying it “deeply” is just appropriately adolescent.

One topic Levitin does not discuss in his book, but which fascinates me, is the relationship between music and lyrics. My husband always comments that I know so many of the lyrics of my favorite songs. To him, the songs are about the “groove”– the rhythms and syncopations. Music affects him on a “bodily” level. (Even more so now that he is studying how to play instruments.) Of course, I love the funky beats too, but I wonder if the “poetry” of the lyrics appeal to me. Or is it a feminine thing since women are more verbal. Oddly, while I am growing to like classical music more and more, I find none of “memorable” because I can’t sing along……. Perhaps if I were a musician and could play the pieces I would feel differently? Maybe lyrics “work” for me because I can use my voice as my “instrument?”

It makes me think of drum circles, where everyone has an instrument, even if they aren’t officially “musicians.” drum circles are great for fostering a sense of a communal undertaking Maybe that’s why songs that seem the most effective in building community are the ones people can sing to… Even if you don’t play an instrument, you can always sing along and be part of the group.


Aren Cohen 13 July 2011 - 7:47 pm


Indeed, you are correct. Lennon died in 1980, and it was a huge loss to the world of music. (Personally, I have always contended that his death was a loss in a larger sense too… I would like to believe that if John Lennon were alive today, the mind that wrote “Imagine” would have become a Nobel Peace Prize winner.) On the 30th anniversary of his death, his widow Yoko Ono wrote a beautiful piece titled “The Tea Maker” in the New York Times:


Despite my error regarding John Lennon being already “deady-bones,” it is accurate that were he alive, he would have turned 70 in 2010.

Thanks for reading and proof-reading!

Danny Rudd 13 July 2011 - 10:17 pm

Hi Aren… great article! I was thinking about just this the other day, and a posted a Facebook note on the subject, and a friend of mine directed me here to read what you’ve written above and leave my fb note as a comment, so here it is:

Horse and Cart – Random Thought
by Danny Rudd on Monday, July 11, 2011
(originally posted at http://www.facebook.com/notes/danny-rudd/horse-and-cart-random-thought/226363114063109?notif_t=note_comment )

[Editor’s Note: comment was shortened for easier interaction in the comments section, but we encourage readers to click here to read Danny’s original post].

I wonder if people’s choices of contemporary music influence their personality?

Now, I’m no expert, but it seems to me that a lot of Metal, for instance, is made up of cynical social commentary; disilliusioned, embittered and angry. Pop music, on the other hand, is almost pathologically obsessed with romantic love and fidelity, to the exclusion of all else. …

It’s not the musical styles themselves, I think that certain styles of music appeal to certain types of people (and doubtless the music industry’s already had studies done on that – and probably academics too – to figure out who likes what and why)… it’s the LYRICS that I’m talking about here*. Because Pop songs only talk about love and cheating, using hyperbole to do so (no one’s EVER loved this way before, I want to be with you FOREVER, you’re PERFECT etc), I think it’s quite possible that if Pop’s all you listen to then you’re going to come away with some pretty unrealistic expectations about your own love life, and consequently you’re going to be frequently disappointed. Similarly, if all you listen to is Country music (which as a genre has much broader subject matter – often telling stories about people’s working lives and aging and so on), you’re probably going to come to see the world as full of little tragedies that no one notices.

I could be putting the cart before the horse here, it might be that people are attracted to music with particular lyrical content BECAUSE there’s something in their own lives that the music helps them to connect with and express…


I realise this ties in more to your response to Sarah and Senia, above, and I was intrigued by your suggestion that appreciation of lyrics is more feminine because of women’s (generally) greater aptitude with verbal communication – one of the things that I took for granted was that everyone actually pays attention to the lyrics, but I have learned since that my assumption was wrong, that in fact a significant umber of my friends can’t recite the lyrics to their favourite songs (and most of my friends are male). Intriguing stuff, and I’ve bookmarked this article to come back to it… thank you for posting it!

Kris 14 July 2011 - 5:44 am

In response to Danny’s post I would have to say that “Born in the USA” must be one of the most misunderstood songs of all times! At a superficial listening to of the beat and the chorus it seems to be an great positive uplifting song, but listening to the lyrics (http://www.lyricsdomain.com/2/bruce_springsteen/born_in_the_usa.html) gives a very different view… An interesting commentary here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/soldonsong/songlibrary/indepth/bornintheusa.shtml

Mark 14 July 2011 - 8:44 am

Fascinating, Aren! I hope you continue to write about music. For over a year now, an assertion that Marty Seligman made has been haunting me – “Man is music.” I don’t fully understand it; it feels like it’s just beyond my reach, but your article brought it a little closer.

You make an interesting distinction between connecting to the beat of the music versus the lyrics, but I don’t think it’s always an “either / or” proposition. For example, I can read a hymn and be somewhat touched by the profoundness of the words, but when singing it accompanied by an organ and 100 other voices, it moves me to tears and I can’t even finish it. There is something about the combination of words and music that makes the whole much greater than the sum of the parts. Likewise, the sound of classical music can be captivating and moving, but when you can sense the story it’s telling, it takes you to a whole new world. I find this to happen more frequently after seeing the opera for which the music was composed. For other pieces, I just try to imagine what the composer was thinking about as he wrote it. I am typically a logical, linear thinker, and not very artistic, so I can’t help but believe that striving to feel the story AND the groove is somehow good for me.

Yukun Zhao 15 July 2011 - 9:33 am

Nice article, Aren! It reminds me of the last class of the first semester in MAPP, when an opera singer came and we sang together. Inspired by this experience, I asked my friends sing together in the New Year’s Party in our home. I totally agree with you in the power of singing!

Scott Asalone 15 July 2011 - 12:18 pm

Love the article. Music has always brought both peace and passion in my life. I agree about your interest in lyrics vs. music. I am also a person who can remember the lyrics of many songs (and I can’t remember people’s names at all). For me lyrics are the poetry of a generation, but I write that as one of the generation who grew up with the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkle. Music captures and unleashes emotion simultaneously. It captures the emotion of the creator and unleashes the emotion of the listener/performer. The beat and rhythm connect with our subconscious creating movement even when we are unaware and the lyrics connect with our conscious drawing us to different planes. Sorry I’m getting caught up by your article.
There is much that can be researched regarding Positive Psychology and music. I look forward to reading your explorations of it.

Aren Cohen 15 July 2011 - 5:42 pm

Hi All!

Wow, thanks for all the thoughtful comments and enthusiasm for the article. I am glad to see this is a topic close to many people’s hearts.

First, Yukun and Mark: Your comments got me thinking about the importance of singing together as a group. Mark, it sounded to me like while opera or classical music touches you, there is something different about signing hymns with a group. My sense is that there is a two-fold effect. First, there is the interaction with the music itself….. singing along or dancing alone while you clean the house and blare your favorite song, or, if you’re a musician, practicing the piano, etc. However, as is true with all positive psychology, “other people matter.” So our experience of music, whether we are singing in a group a church or around a campfire, dancing in a nightclub or rockin’ out at a concert, (or, again, if you are a musician, performing in a group) the effect is different when there are other people there. It amplifies it and makes it more powerful. It helps strengthen the community, adding more “honey” to the hive.

Danny and Kris, you make great points about lyrics and how they effect our psychology (and demographics). Indeed, the message of Born in the USA might be different than one might expect, but we have seen many people pump their fists to this anthem, either in pride, anger or disillusionment.

Recently there has been a lot of press regarding psychological research done at the University of Kentucky that has found that “narcissism” has been on the rise in music lyrics between 1980-2007. (see: http://www.npr.org/2011/04/26/135745227/study-narcissism-on-rise-in-pop-lyrics). An article in New York Magazine argues that the sample data is largely imperfect (http://nymag.com/arts/popmusic/features/narcissism-2011-7/) but nonetheless it is an interesting point. Are we effected by how many time we hear “I” or “me” versus “You” or “Us?’ What songs would you put on your positive playlist, and would it be more frequently “I” or “We”??? (Side note: makes me think of the wonderful 1970’s Coca-Cola add “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfU17niXOG8)

Another interesting point about lyrics comes from Levitin’s book. He took a group of subjects who were not musicians and asked them to sing their favorite songs. Amazingly, almost all of them sang the songs in the correct pitch. (He has a specific definition of pitch; it is different from key but is the relational distances from one note to another.) Hence lyrics do serve the purpose of helping us remember “how the song goes.”

Finally, Mark, I agree with you, there is something haunting about Marty’s statement, “Man is Music.” And indeed, music is a very powerful way to get people to act “en mass.” One of the things I have often puzzled about, though, is Marty’s language. Why is it “Man?” Is Marty short-handing for “humanity,” or is there something specific about men and music? Surely there are many, many extremely talented and famous female artists out there. But is there a difference between the music made by men and women, and how it affects us? One thing Levitin is very funny about in his book is talking about how Male rock groups often have groupies (probably in a way female stars don’t). He comments that there may be the possibility that the ability to perform music is an evolutionary asset for men. (Swooning women means more likelihood to procreate.) I wonder if Taylor Swift’s or Lady Gaga’s or even Britney Spear’s fans have the same “passion” as Justin Beiber’s do now or the Beatles’ fans did in the 1960-70’s? (Again, on a side note, last year I went with my husband to the “Glee” concert and we were both overwhelmed by the power of female teenage hormones and the intensity of the screaming they can produce….. which again gets us back to music and teens…..)

Alright, enough babbling. Thank you all so much for reading and continuing the conversation!!

Sanna 20 July 2011 - 8:58 am

Hi there,
interesting stuff. It also made me think of some emerging research into music and its role in performance: see e.g. here

Although sport psychology and positive psychology are distinct areas, I believe they are so highly related that they have much to learn from each other, and so perhaps should cite each other more … 🙂

Christine Duvivier 20 July 2011 - 9:59 am

Hey Aren, thanks for the lovely article and great reminders about music! Have you seen the book “Power vs. Force?” Psychiatrist David Hawkins uses kinesiology to measure people’s emotions and he agrees with you! Says that all music is uplifting, except the rap songs with degrading lyrics.

You reminded me of the research that showed singing in a group was a high-bonding, unplifting activity.

Thanks for brightening my day!

Aren Cohen 22 July 2011 - 5:00 pm

Hi Sanna, Hi Christine,

Thanks so much for your comments! Sanna, the link you sent was very interesting and led me to this: http://www.bases.org.uk/Music-in-Exercise, which is fascinating. I agree with you that there is a tremendous overlap, particularly in the area of the effects of music, between sports and positive psychology. Recently I heard about a company that was making specific compilations where the beats per minute of the music are supposed to correlate to the pace of the workout. (It looks like that is something Dr. Karageorghis may have been involved with as well.) It reminded me that I once had a spinning instructor who insisted on speeding up the tempo of songs based what he wanted our intensity to be. I found that I always wished that he had just played another, faster song, because hearing Bruce Springsteen sped-up, even just a little bit, made me feel like I was exercising to Alvin and the Chipmunks instead of “the Boss.” 🙂

My last article (https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/aren-cohen/2011062418341) was more directly related to exercise. While that article discusses the addition of positive affirmations to a workout. I should not have left out the detail that the class is set to music as well.

Christine – I have not read “Power vs. Force,” but I will look it up. Thank you for the recommendation!



Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com