Illustrations: James Lake
Why does music produce such a strong emotional response in us?
Music can be complex – so its effect on us can also be complex. One of the most powerful ways music produces an emotional response is to pull up memories that have become associated with it. Music we listened to in our youth is the soundtrack for a lot of important and emotional events – first love, losses, changes in self-identity and social identity. This music is bound to memories of those events in a ‘music-emotion-memory’ brain hub, so that the emotions and memories are also triggered whenever we hear those songs again.
Music can also be emotionally powerful because it is physiologically activating. Some of our very basic survival systems in the brain and body can be alerted by music. In this way, any emotions we’re feeling in response to the music can become strengthened.
Another way music can produce strong emotions is via empathy. We can hear a mournful cello, a foreboding bass, a slow, fearful rhythm, or a crying voice singing the blues – and we share the emotion being expressed. The parts of the brain activated when we personally feel those emotions can also be activated by watching or listening to others experiencing those emotions – so we ‘feel’ the emotions the musician or composer is trying to express in the music.
How can music make us feel happier and more energised? What are the characteristics of tracks that give us this feeling?
Some of the key characteristics of uplifting music are a faster tempo, major keys, bright timbres, consonant harmonies and regular rhythms (Vivaldi’s Spring is a good example). This type of music is more likely to make people happier than slower, minor key, irregular melodies (Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor is a classic example of a piece that is more likely to make us sad). Any music that mimics events in our world that alert us – like fast or loud sounds, or unexpected events – will physiologically arouse us, and have the potential to energise us.
But this will differ across individuals. Our associations with a piece of music, current mood, personality or personal preferences can trump the structure or style of the music. So while the bright, upbeat style of march music should be happy, my preferences mean it’s likely to annoy me. Slow bluesy songs about angst can make me smile because they are so beautiful.
Studies have shown that music can also activate the same reward systems in our brain as do other reinforcing stimuli, like food, sex and drugs. The happy chemical dopamine is released and we feel pleasure as a result.
The key predictor of whether music will trigger this pleasure system is not to do with the actual type of music, but rather whether an individual personally likes it or not. Familiarity with a piece of music can also increase the chances we will like it, as does the right level of complexity (too difficult and we don’t understand it, too simple and it’s boring). For each individual, the level of music knowledge and exposure we’ve had in across our lives will determine which type of music is likely to be most pleasurable for us.