Music and the Brain in “Stranger Things”

Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for “Stranger Things” Season 4.

The effect of music on the brain is a frequent theme for Soundshop. We’ve tackled binaural audio, horror movie music and epilepsy, and more. The power of music gets a major spotlight in the latest season of “Stranger Things.”

In Episode 4, Dr. Anthony Hatch, director of the Pennhurst Mental Hospital, gives Nancy and Robin a tour of the facility. The first stop is the “listening room,” where patients can listen to music. “We found that music has a particularly calming effect on the broken mind. The right song, particularly one which holds some personal meaning, can prove a salient stimulus,” Dr. Hatch says.

In her Soundshop Music Blog post “How Songwriting is Therapy,” Emma G discussed this phenomenon. “There’s…evidence to suggest that music lowers our levels of the stress hormone cortisol. So even when we are feeling our absolute worst, hearing our favorite songs has the ability to alchemize our angst into something positive,” she said.

After the tour, Nancy and Robin get a chance to interview Victor Creel about the decades-old murders of his family, for which he is imprisoned. Creel describes a demon attack that aligns with what the Hawkins teens seem to be experiencing. He mentions being trapped in a traumatic memory until he followed a “voice of an angel” back to reality, where he turned out to be the lone survivor. When Nancy and Robin ask him who the angel was, he hums “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” the song that was playing during the dinner when his family was attacked.

Robin makes the connection and points out to Nancy, “Hatch said that music can reach parts of the brain that words can’t.” Soundshop founder Akpanoluo Etteh echoed this fact during a virtual “Music and Language” event that Soundshop hosted with The Brain Bar Salon back in May 2020: “Music activates the entire brain, whereas language, although very important, is more restricted in its localization.” He explained that language processing occurs primarily in the temporal lobe in the left hemisphere of the brain.

When Max is in the midst of her own demon attack, Robin and Nancy tell Dustin to play her favorite song. What comes next is the scene that shot the iconic singer Kate Bush up to the top of the Billboard charts.

Just as the demon, Vecna, is about to kill Max in her own agonizing memory, the sounds of “Running Up That Hill” start to come through, and a pocket of reality opens up in the distance. A flood of happy memories with her friends fills her mind, and she manages to break free, run toward reality, and escape back to the real world as the song swells triumphantly.

Max running away from Vecna and toward reality (Netflix/GIPHY)

As Emma G wrote, “music fires up neuropathways in the brain that increase our connection to positive experiences and feelings.” Or as Lucas put it to Max: “[Kate Bush] saved your life!”

Max has survived Vecna once, but since she is still on his hit list, she starts listening to Kate Bush on loop to prevent another attack. At this point, it’s debatable who has heard “Running Up That Hill” more, Max or us.

The classic hit is all over TikTok and Instagram. Everyone from Halsey to Kim Petras has covered the song. The resurgence of the 1985 single has made Kate Bush at least $2.3 million since the season debuted at the end of May. When the song reached number one on UK charts in June, the singer broke the records for longest gap between number-one singles for one artist (44 years), longest amount of time (37 years) for a song to reach number one after its initial release, and oldest female artist (63 years and 11 months old) to reach number one.

Now that “Stranger Things” Season 4, Volume 2 has dropped, Metallica is getting their own revival. Eddie and Dustin’s epic guitar rendition of the 1986 song “Master of Puppets” is pivotal in distracting the bats in the Upside Down so that the others can go try to kill Vecna. The original track is currently number six on the Spotify Top 50 - USA and number two on iTunes. (“Running Up That Hill” is number one on both.)

As Akpanoluo discussed in his “Music and Language” talk, the linguist and neuroscientist Steven Pinker once said, “Compared with language, vision, social reasoning, and physical know-how, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged.” Max, her friends, and millions of Kate Bush and Metallica fans would strongly disagree.

By the way, if you want to know what song would save you from Vecna, there’s a playlist for that.

—Melissa Lee, Head of Social Media

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The Soundshop Music Blog

The Soundshop Music Blog

This is the blog of The Soundshop music salon and community of New York City. This blog aims to analyze music in a way that enhances general music knowledge.