Music on the Mind
An Exploration into the Mystery of Why We Love Music
Few things in this world have a more profound impact on the human psyche than music.
We all know that music plays an important role in how we interact with the world around us. It influences our thoughts, feelings and behaviors and helps us express and understand our experiences – whether it’s getting pumped for a night out, letting out anger, or coping with a breakup. Speaking of which…
*Alexa, play ‘In My Feelings’ by Drake*
The question is WHY?
There have been thousands of studies devoted to understanding why music makes our little lizard brains so happy. And while we certainly have a better idea of the mechanics of what happens when we listen to music, plenty of mystery still remains.
So without further ado, let’s take a trip down the rabbit hole, shall we?
Oh – and if you’re like me and this kind of thing makes your nerd brain go cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs then buckle up, because this article is only the first in a new Music Psychology series.
Why Are People Drawn to Music?
Ah yes, starting off with a nice and simple…
So the “mystery” of humans’ obsession with music really comes down to this question. And the answer is – we don’t really know (at least not definitively).
We do know that music has been a part of the human experience for many thousands of years. The earliest physical evidence we have of music making are 40,000 year old fragments of bird-bone pipes. But in all likelihood, humans’ inclination for music far predates any recorded evidence – some theories state that humans may have been singing over 530,000 years ago.
To understand why the origin of music is such a conundrum, you have to think about the evolutionary perspective. There’s not much of a logical explanation as to why our ancestors would have cared about music since it’s not necessary for survival.
So why do we love music? Well, there are a couple of theories…
Patterns, Patterns Everywhere
Some scientists think our love of music stems from the fact that our brains are hardwired to seek out patterns. See, when humanity was just beginning, identifying – and predicting – patterns was quite literally a matter of life and death. Rustling in the bushes means an animal might attack. Thunder and lightning indicate it’s time to find shelter. The more effectively we can see patterns and predict subsequent events, the better we can prepare an appropriate response and, you know, not die.
At its core, music is just a composition of patterns. When we listen to a song we’re actively anticipating the next progression of chords, melodies, rhythm, etc. And the better we can predict the flow of music, the more we tend to like the song.
On the flipside, the reason why we don’t usually like a song when we hear it for the first time, and shy away from certain styles of music that aren’t familiar to us is because we lack the basis to predict its patterns.
Music Activates the Part of Your Brain that Processes Speech
Why does music have the ability to evoke practically the whole spectrum of human emotion? Well, some scientists say the reason why we love music is because music affects the same regions of the brain that process speech – which just so happens to be the same regions we use to convey emotions.
It makes sense that our brains are adept at picking up emotions in speech. Our ability to thrive in social situations depends on our ability to understand the emotions of the people around us. And we get most of this information from the tone, pitch and speed of a person’s speech. For example, lower-pitched voices can range from comforting to threatening, and higher-pitched voices tend to sound happy.
It’s the same with music. When music is in a higher pitch and a faster tempo it portrays excitement and joy, and because we naturally tend to mimic emotions we encounter, we take on the mood of the music.
This is Your Brain on
Our brains support a complex reward system that activates every time we engage in behaviors that support our survival. Activities like eating, or even smelling food, or having sex elicit trigger a release of dopamine – a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in pleasure, motivation and learning (AKA the feel-good chemical).
In 2019, a study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which found that listening to music activates the same reward system, however there’s no real explanation as to why it happens.
“In everyday life, humans regularly seek participation in highly complex and pleasurable experiences such as music listening, singing, or playing, that do not seem to have any specific survival advantage. Understanding how the brain translates a structured sequence of sounds, such as music, into a pleasant and rewarding experience is thus a challenging and fascinating question,” said study author Laura Ferreri, an associate professor in cognitive psychology at Lyon University.
While we may not fully understand the complex reasons behind why we love music, we do know that music has a profound, and undeniably positive, impact on our lives. So the next time you go to play your favorite song, maybe you’ll think about all the happy chemicals flying around in your brain (or maybe not). Either way, the point is that tuning in and turning up is just plain good for the soul.
So in the words of the Doobie Brothers – Listen to the Music.
Got a go-to song that makes your brain go “brrr”? Drop it in the comments below!
Without artists there would be no music. Find out more about how projectNEWM is helping artists reclaim control of their music here.
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This was a great read! I have never heard it from this perspective thank you for this article. #MobtanaFever