Music is a universal language. No matter how old you are, where you grew up, and what kind of music you prefer, music has a way of connecting with people. It is a stimulant, a mood enhancer, and a time capsule. A song can trigger a memory and then suddenly you are transported to a different place. Music invokes a plethora of feelings such as happiness, sadness, a sense of accomplishment, that moment you were invincible, or when a big mistake was made, and when you had the greatest moment of your life. Many people associate music with worship of their higher power. Music is undoubtedly food for the soul, yet, from one perspective, it makes no sense whatsoever that music insights emotions.
Looking at this from a scientific standpoint, why would our early ancestors have cared about music? Despite many who would argue the contrary, myself included, music is not necessary for survival. A person’s octave range is very rarely a matter of life and death. It does not make any difference if it is Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Luke Bryan, Luther Vandross, Lil’ Wayne, or even Beethoven, whether we like someone as an artist or not — their style of singing is not something one would have to seek protection from.
So why does something as abstract as music provoke such consistent emotions? It is quite possible that our love of music happened by accident. From an evolutionary perspective, we originally developed emotions to help us navigate our fears through once dangerous worlds and joy through different social situations. Somehow, the tones and beats of musical composition activate similar brain areas. “It could be the case that it evolved serendipitously, but once it evolved it became really important,” Robert Zatorre, a neuroscientist at McGill University, says. Below are two theories on how that happened.
Our brains love patterns – music is a pattern.
Studies have shown that when we listen to music, our brains release dopamine, which in turn makes us happy. In one study published in Nature Neuroscience, led by Zatorre, researchers found that the dopamine release is strongest when a piece of music reaches an emotional peak and the listener feels that spine-tingling sensation of excitement and awe. Now that may explain why we like music, however, it does not explain why we developed this affinity in the first place. Our brains typically release dopamine during behavior that is essential to survival, such as eating. This makes sense — it is an adaptation that encourages us to do more of these behaviors. Even though I personally could not see living my life without music, physically, music is not essential in the same way.
“Music engages the same reward system, even though it is not biologically necessary for survival,” says Zatorre. One possibility is that it is a function of our love of patterns. Perhaps we evolved to recognize patterns because it was an essential skill for survival. Does a rustling in the trees mean a dangerous animal is about to attack? Does the smell of smoke mean I should run because a fire may be coming my way?
As we listen to the musical patterns, we are anticipating what melodies, harmonies, and rhythms may come next. If you hear a chord progression — a one chord, a four chord, and a five chord — one can assume that the next chord is going to be another one chord, because that prediction is based on past experience. That is why most people do not like styles of music they are not familiar with. When we are unfamiliar with a style of music, we do not have a basis to predict the patterns. Jazz is one music style that many who are unacquainted with have trouble latching on to. When we cannot predict musical patterns, we tend to become bored. We learn through our cultures what sounds constitute music. Influences such as family, friends, social media, basically what we are exposed to, is how we develop our taste. The rest is random noise.
Music fools the brain into thinking it is speech
The above explanation may describe why we feel joy from music but does not explain the whole other range of emotions music can produce. When we hear a piece of music, the rhythm latches onto us in a process called entrainment. If the music is fast-paced, our heartbeats and breathing patterns will accelerate to match the beat. That arousal may then be interpreted by our brains as excitement. Research has found that the more pleasant-sounding the music, the greater the level of entrainment.
Another hypothesis is that music latches onto the regions of the brain attuned to speech, which conveys all of our emotions. This would make sense that our brains are really good at picking up emotions in speech. It is essential for people to pick up on and understand if those around us are happy, sad, angry, or scared. Much of that information is contained in the tone of a person’s speech. Higher-pitched voices usually sound happier while more warbled voices are scared or upset in some way.
Music may then be an exaggerated version of speech. Just as higher-pitched and speedier voices connote excitement, so do higher-pitched and speedier selections of music. Think about it, even the happiest pitch I can make in my voice, a piano, violin, or trumpet can make it 100 times more happy in a way. Instruments can produce a much wider range of notes than the human voice. Because we tend to mirror the emotions we hear in others, if the music is mimicking happy speech, then the listener will become happy too. For more information on this topic, checkout The Psychology of Music by Carl Seashore and Sound, Speech, Music in Soviet or Post-Soviet Cinema by Indiana University Press.
Now that we have looked at the sciency, logical, physicality side as to why people love music so much, let us ponder another side to this conundrum. This side is much less complex. People love music simply because it is pleasurable. As stated previously, listening to music often evokes intense emotions. Much of music’s gratification comes from the patterns of melody, rhythm, catchy lyrics, expectations, or sudden changes or surprises. When we have previously favored a song by an artist, we naturally want to listen to more of their releases. We expect to like their next song just as we did with other selections by that artist. Additionally, an unexpected change in intensity and tempo is one of the primary means by which music provokes a strong emotional response in listeners. When the mind engages with the rhythms, it motivates us to engage with the music, taking in the melodies and listening/connecting to the words. It makes listening an enjoyable experience. It satisfies the human need to be heard. When an artist you love belts out a personal experience through their words that you can identify with music that hits just right, that song becomes more and more significant to you.
On the flip side, with enough exposure, the difference between expected and actual events decreases such that listeners begin to anticipate what will happen next. The music becomes less and less pleasing. This is the novelty factor of a song versus the familiarity of a song. Let me put that into simpler terms. Think of stores during Christmas when specific music gets played on repeat. We tend to start disliking those songs because we have listened to them over and over. Can you recall a song that you know was overdone? We can all name that one song that every instance you turned on the local radio station, satellite radio, YouTube ad, etc., that song was playing. After so many intervals of hearing the same thing on repeat, the less likely it was that you wanted to hear it. While this is not true for everyone, many of us get burnt out on a song we hear again and again and again. This might also explain why our likings change over the phases of our lives. Nothing is ever as good as that first incidence of hearing a song and connecting with the lyrics and beat. Similarly, if we have not heard a song for a long while, the emotion gets stirred up again, and we feel like we did that first moment.
Music is indeed powerful. Although we are not 100 percent sure as to how it came to fruition and no matter the reason people listen to music, it is intertwined in the daily lives of millions of individuals. If you are interested in learning more about music and different aspects of its history and effects on the lives of people, Salina Public Library has plenty of options for you to peruse. Be sure to check out Music by Stefanie Anduri, Music: Dictionary of Daily Life by Edwin Yamauci, High Interest Steam Music by Stefanie Anduri, Music is History by QuestLove, or The History of Music by Hope Killcoyne.