Music can spark joy. Whether you’re grinning to a Dolly Parton tune, thrilling to a Bach concerto or even weeping through a Puccini opera, you are engaged in what may be a uniquely human activity — the translation of music into emotions.
“We know of no other animal than humans that seems to appreciate music the same way,” says Morten Kringelbach, a neuroscience researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and Aarhus University in Denmark. Deriving emotional meaning from music is an almost universal ability among humans and it’s probably as old as humanity itself. “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, San Francisco, and the author of Successful Aging. He’s also a member of the AARP Global Council on Brain Health’s (GCBH) committee on music and the brain. “We evolved with music and so music activates deep emotional centers in us because it was selected to do that by evolution.” Music can bring both well-being and happiness, a new GCBH report notes. The report recommends that people try listening to new music, singing with others and dancing — all of which can bring pleasure.
How and why our brains create this emotional response is a matter of scientific debate. Music can engage the same brain circuits and brain chemicals involved in our enjoyment of food and sex: Pleasures directly linked with our survival. When a song sends tingles up your spine, “it’s like a musical orgasm,” complete with the release of natural opiates, says Kringelbach.
Our favorite songs also 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 brains respond 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 an emotional cascade.
Music may also create pleasure by playing with our expectations and engaging our brain’s predictive powers, says Kringelbach, who is also a member of the GCBH committee. As you listen to a piece of music, your brain is not only following the melody, harmony and rhythm, it is constantly predicting where the music will go next. When your expectations are met, you feel a moment of delight. When your expectations are not met, you may also feel delight — a shiver of surprise or appreciation for the unexpected turn.
“It’s like this endless plot that moves along and fulfills or violates our expectations in just the right way,” says Petr Janata, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis. The experience is powerful, he says, because it taps into a basic survival skill: “Our brains are all about predicting what’s going to happen next.”
Cultural differences can affect our response to music. Someone who grew up listening to traditional Chinese music will respond differently than someone hearing it for the first time. Pop music from your youth may move you more than the songs your children love. Ultimately, however, music bonds us together — and adds meaning to our lives, Kringelbach says.
“Unlike a piece of chocolate, which has a great taste and then is gone, music is somehow intrinsically meaningful,” he says. “For real flourishing, we need meaningful things in our lives.” —Kim Painter