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Why Music Brings Us Joy

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From Mozart to Metallica: How tunes stir up feel-good emotions

Music can spark joy. Whether you’re grinning to a Dolly Parton tune, thrilling to a Bach concerto or weeping through a Puccini opera, you are engaged in what may be a uniquely human activity—the translation of music into emotions.

“Music has been with our species from the very beginning,” says Daniel Levitin, the founding dean of arts and humanities at the Minerva Schools at the Keck Graduate Institute in San Francisco. He’s also a member of the AARP Global Council on Brain Health’s (GCBH) committee on music and brain health, which recently issued a new report on music’s brain benefits.

Our favorite songs engage brain areas known as the default mode network, which is linked to self-awareness, memory and well-being. Memories and associations may play roles in how our brain responds to music. We hear a song from our past and we’re overwhelmed with emotions. Or a musical passage triggers a visual image that sets off a cascade of feelings.

Music also provides pleasure. Songs can engage the same brain circuits and chemicals involved in our enjoyment of food and sex—pleasures directly linked with our survival. When a tune sends tingles up your spine, “it’s like a musical orgasm,” complete with the release of natural opiates, says Morten Kringelbach, a neuroscience researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and Aarhus University in Denmark. —Kim Painter

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