Music. That almost-unearthly force that possesses the remarkable ability to transcend physical boundaries and transport us to realms beyond the mundane. It holds the unique capacity to elevate our spirits and bridge the gaps between hearts, wrapping us in its harmonious embrace and evoking emotions that traverse time and space. In moments when the weight of the world presses down, music emerges as a guiding light, transporting us to a sanctuary of solace and inspiration.
But what explains this phenomenon?
The quick answer would be that it provides pleasure. But the question to the why still remains. In a report by NPR’s Rob Stein, a group of scientists shared some insights on the matter, in an attempt to uncover the mysteries behind why music holds such an irresistible sway over us. While the exact mechanisms remain elusive, a tapestry of theories and discoveries has shed light on the science that might be behind the captivating bond between music and the human psyche.
Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill University who scans the brains of people while they listen to music, remarked that “some of it is still mysterious to us,” but that it is safe to talk about “some neural circuits or networks involved in the experience of pleasure and reward.”
Zooming in on the physiological intricacies, Levitin unraveled how music orchestrates a dance of neural engagement. Integral brain circuits, such as the amygdala, ventral tegmental area, and nucleus accumbens, awaken during the auditory experience, mirroring their activation during primal urges, like satisfying thirst or having sex. This surge triggers the release of chemicals in the brain, including dopamine, also known as the happiness hormone, engendering a profound sense of pleasure, similar to the exhilaration of satiating a long-standing curiosity.
Music does evoke a sense of wonder and awe for lots of people.Daniel Levitin, neuroscientist at McGill University
In a study from 2011, led by Robert Zatorre, a neuroscientist at McGill University, researchers discovered that this dopamine release reaches its zenith during musical climaxes, inducing those spine-tingling chills that inspire awe and exhilaration.
While this insight sheds light on why music resonates so deeply within us, the question of the origin of such effect remains enigmatic. Unlike behaviors critical to survival, such as eating or reproducing, music doesn’t possess the same biological necessity. So why do we crave it?
In “The Descent of Man”, from 1871, Charles Darwin wrote that “as neither the enjoyment nor capacity of producing music notes are faculties of the least use to man… they must be ranked among the most mysterious with which he is endowed”.
Music engages the same [reward] system [as survival tasks], even though it is not biologically necessary for survival.Robert Zatorre, neuroscientist at McGill University
One hypothesis revolves around humanity’s affinity for patterns — a skill evolved for survival. Recognizing patterns, from a rustle in the trees signaling danger to the scent of smoke indicating fire, conferred an evolutionary advantage. The needed adaption leads to an encouragement to carry more of these behaviors. However, we know that music is not essential in a similar form, so why does it have an identical need for a response?
Music, woven with melodies and harmonies, influences this innate predilection for anticipation. As Zatorre elucidates, our brain predicts musical progressions based on past experiences, explaining our preference for familiar musical styles and the unease towards the unfamiliar that often leaves us disinterested. The fact that we also experience a dopamine release several seconds before the musical emotional peak, during what we might call the anticipation phase, shows how musical fits our love for patterns and how our adaptation leads to a response to certain musical stimuli.
Our brains, enriched with a lifetime of musical exposure, form templates of the statistical regularities found in our cultural music, enabling us to interpret the music we hear in relation to our mental archives.This profound connection between music, patterns, and our evolutionary heritage underscores the intricacies of our musical inclinations and the stories they unveil.
The act of listening to music, therefore, becomes a remarkable interplay of reliving the past and forecasting the future. Composers and performers instinctively grasp this phenomenon, strategically leveraging our brain’s prediction mechanisms to craft musical compositions that resonate with our expectations – or to introduce delightful surprises that captivate our auditory senses. In essence, the symphony of music unfolds not only within our ears but within the intricate neural pathways that bridge the realms of art and science.
The fact that we use music as our steadfast ally, propelling us through rigorous workouts or emboldening us to confront tasks we’d rather avoid, might also justify why we treat it as an essential need to fulfill – we rely on it, at a certain level, to act as an artful conductor of our emotional symphony.
Moreover, neurons within our brains synchronize with the music’s rhythm, creating a shared harmony that connects listeners on a profound level and fostering a sense of unity and belonging — verifying that we are, in a very real sense, “on the same wavelength.”
We imagine, ‘Why do I feel this way? What is this music teaching me about what is vast and mysterious?’ Music allows us to feel these transcendent emotions.Dacher Keltner, psychologist from the University of California, Berkeley
Beyond synchronization, the enchantment of music extends to a physical realm. The melodies possess an innate capacity to soothe, calming heart rates, deepening breaths, and mitigating stress hormones. In this synesthetic experience, the interplay between body and mind fuels a sense of wonder. “Those pathways of changing our body, symbolizing what is vast and mysterious for us, and then moving our bodies, triggers the mind into a state of wonder,” Dacher Keltner, a psychologist from the University of California, Berkeley, told NPR.
In an observation that potentially unravels the reason music has featured prominently in spiritual, religious, and communal rituals throughout history, Keltner affirmed that music plays a remarkable role in battling the scourge of modern loneliness. Emotions like awe, ignited by music, cultivate a sense of belonging and connection, directly impacting well-being and health.
The exploration does not end with the listeners; musicians stand as living testaments to music’s enchantment. Mike Gordon, the bass player for Phish, shared his personal insight into this phenomenon. “Yeah, I definitely experience wonder while playing music on a regular basis”, Gordon confessed. “It’s almost like these neural pathways are opening. And it’s almost like the air around me crystalizes where everything around me is more itself.”