Why music makes us feel good?

Nobody knows why music influences our emotions so profoundly. But we have a few interesting hints thanks to some recent studies. Why are we enjoying music? This one works on several levels, like most good questions. At certain stages, but not all of us have answers.

We like music because it’s nice for us. Why do we feel confident about that? Anne Blood and Robert Zatorre from the University of McGill in Montreal issued a reply in 2001. Using magnetic imagery they have shown that people who listen to enjoyable music have stimulated brain regions that are called limbic and paralimbic areas that are associated with euphoric rewards like sex, good nutrition, and addictive medicines. The rewards are from a gush called dopamine by a neurotransmitter. The medicine is music, as DJ Lee Haslam told us.

Why, though? It is simple enough to understand why sex and food are rewarded with a surge of dopamine, which makes us want more and helps our survival and spread. But why would a series of sounds with no simple survival meaning do the same? (Some medications are subverting the surviving instinct by inducing dopamine release under false pretenses).

Nobody knows the facts. But now we have plenty of clues about why music is emotional. The current favourite theory among scientists who research the knowledge of music – how we psychologically deal with it – is from 1956,  when Leonard Meyer, philosopher, and composer, proposed that emotion in music is about what we expect, and whether or not we get it. Meyer drew on previous emotional psychological ideas, which he suggested emerging when we can not fulfil certain wishes. This triggers frustration or rage, as you might imagine but when we search what we look for, whether it be love or cigarette, the payoff is all the more satisfying.

That’s what music does, Meyer argued. It creates sonic patterns and regularities which make us unaware of what is about to happen. If we’re right, the brain would be a little rewarded a rush of dopamine, as we can now see. The continuous dance between expectation and consequence thus increases the brain’s emotional pleasure.

Why should we be worried, however, about the right or wrong musical expectations? Our life does not depend on them. It is not. Ah, the Ohio State University musicologist David Huron says, but maybe it did once. Predicting our environment – interpreting what we see and hear, say, on the basis of partial information only – may once have been and sometimes still are vital to our survival, for instance as we cross the road. It may have been a brilliant idea to include feelings in these expectations. Our ancestors had no luxury to think about African savanna, whether it was achieved by a harmless monkey or a ruined lion. The mental processing of the sound may lead to a rush of adrenaline – the body of intestines prepared to leave us, by overcoming the “logic intellectual brain” and taking a shortcut to the original limbic circuits that regulate our emotions.

We all know that music has this direct line to emotions: who wasn’t bothered by the tears that swell in a romantic movie, even as the rational mind shows that it was just cynical manipulation? This anticipative impulse, and its relation to emotions, can not be shut off – while we know that in a Mozart sonata there is nothing life-threatening.  “The propensity of nature to exaggerate gives musicians a golden opportunity,” Huron says. “Composers can construct mode-passages with the most  harmless stimuli that can trigger remarkably strong emotions.”

It seems the most promising candidate hypothesis to think that musical emotions are triggered by minor breaches and manipulation of our perceptions but is very hard to evaluate. One explanation is that music provides literally so much potential to build and break perceptions that what we can calculate and compare is not obvious. We expect growing melodies to continue to evolve – but not for long, as never before.

We expect peace rather than jarring discord – but two hundred years ago what sounds good today might have seemed dissonant. We anticipate standard rhythms but are shocked if rock’n’roll jumpy sync abruptly shifts to four-square oompah time. The expectation is a complex and continually shifting interplay of how the piece we hear has gone, how it compares to like pieces and styles, and how it compares everything we ever heard.

One corollary of Meyer’s theory is that music’s emotion is largely cultural. You need to know the rules – to grasp what’s usual – in order to have any hopes of where the music comes first. This varies between cultures. Western Europeans think the simple rhythms of waltz-time are “natural,” but Eastern Europeans gladly dance to meters which sound oddly complicated. We all develop a powerful, subconscious sense which notices a “right” sound whether in a melody sequence or in harmony. But as cultures use different scales and tunings – for instance, the scales in India and Indonesia don’t value piano tuning – these expectations are not universal. Westerners can perceive a beautiful piece of Indonesian music as “sad,” only because it sounds like a piece of the typically “sad” small scale.

This image also means that music is not only about good vibrations, but it can also induce other emotions, such as anxiety, forbearance, and even frustration. Composers and artists walk a careful path to the right extent to shift perceptions. And the music can not be anticipated enough, since the children’s tunes seem adult. Too many people are battling atonal modernist music and we can’t grow any standards at all.

All of this will make a great deal of sense as to why we experience emotions from unique musical sentences and performances.  In a brain-scanning study by Zatorre and fellow students, which showed that the music rewards first heard rely in particular on contact between “emotion” and “logic” brain circuits, Meyer’s thoughts have recently received additional support.

It isn’t the whole story, however. So many other variables, for example, when we hear music alone or in a crowd or when we connect one of our pieces with a past experience, whether good or bad (called the theory “The darling they play our tuna”) will condition our emotional reaction to music.

The fact that we don’t really know what kind of feelings we speak of is behind all those thoughts. Without feeling sad we can recognise sad songs. And even though we feel sad, it is not like the grief of sorrow even though it provokes tears, it can be fun. Some music can produce intense emotion, like some of Bach’s, even though we can not put emotion into words. So, surely, at least before we get a more accurate picture, we will never understand why the music triggers emotions.

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