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How Music Creates Emotion and Stimulates the Brain

When we listen to music, it can generate intense feelings in our minds and bodies. Even with no background or knowledge of how music is made, listeners can go on a deeply personal yet interconnected journey through various moods and emotions.

As far as we know, no other animal reacts to music in quite the same way. The desire to process and understand the emotions of music, and to take great pleasure in doing so, is a uniquely human characteristic. Music has been observed across cultures and throughout time, with evidence of instruments found dating back to 40,000 years ago.

It’s well known that music is exceptionally useful when it comes to transmitting emotion. Autistic people who would usually have difficulty processing feelings often have their limbic systems activated by music. For most people, music conveys emotion much better than words ever could do.

The Language of Emotion

To the uninitiated, music seems like a completely foreign language. Everyone feels something when they listen to music, yet few know exactly why. Still, it’s easy enough to recognize that music has a structure, and sets of rules around progression and syntax. Musicians often use this language to convey moods and emotional journeys.

So, how did music come to be the language of emotion? What responses does it illicit in the brain? On a simple level, psychologists have found that the brain releases dopamine when we listen to music. This gives us a happy and natural high. Music also tends to light up certain areas of the brain that are associated with processing emotion.

There are several theories as to how and why this response occurs, and multiple psychological and emotional responses are at work. One theory suggests that the beat of the rhythms and frequency of the sound waves directly drives neurons to fire at different rates. Your brain activity is literally resonating to the music, and this creates an overall mood.

Memory is known to play a key role in individual responses to music. Sounds, chords or entire songs remind us of happy, sad, or emotional times and when we hear the same song, or similar, it takes us right back to those same feelings. Seasonal songs may make us reminisce over holidays. This can also explain why feelings towards songs can change. That album you always listened to in joy with an ex-lover can soon become a sound associated with discomfort or sadness.

Our own memory and experiences therefore tie into the feelings we have now when we hear music that is meaningful to us, but humans also seem to want to understand the message conveyed by the artist. Mirror neurons try to empathize with the emotion of the music, so that we feel what is being heard, just as we might emphathise with a friend telling us of an emotional trauma.

When we listen to music, the auditory cortex is activated for making simple musical predictions, while the frontal lobe makes more complex predictions and structural changes. These areas of the brain are strongly interconnected with the limbic system, which is associated with processing emotion.

The result is a dynamic feedback loop of information between several brain circuits, all following the ebb and flow of the music and aiming to replicate the same emotions. As stated before, music is a language, and this activity represents the brain interpreting that language.

From Relaxation to Commercialization

Given that music has such a strong emotional response on the listener, it makes sense that humans have used it for all kinds of reasons, from relaxing in the evening to encouraging other people to buy more products when browsing a shop.

Music has been shown to have a soothing effect on those studying for exams. It can reduce stress and anxiety, increase endurance of study efforts and even improve focus and memorization. It’s not all good, as music could also distract people and reduce processing power.

Interestingly, there has always been an intrinsic link between poker and music, with many players swearing that it helps them get through grueling sessions. Music has also been used extensively in poker film scenes. You can see here the way music is used contextually with other mediums. Poker scenes often utilize upbeat and engaging instrumentals to convey the sophistication and excitement of the action at the tables.

One use of music that has been widely studied is music in a commercial environment. Of course, knowing that music can lead to emotional response, there’s every reason why people would want to use this to their own end and exercise their right to capitalize on subconscious forces that are little understood by buyers.

A Swedish electronic shop found that customers spent an average of 8 minutes more in store with background music compared to silence, along with 78% increases in sales. A wine shop found that classical music led to more expensive purchases, while French music encouraged more sales of French wine and German music more sales of German wine.

The power of music is clear, but how you use it is up to you!

Humans have a deep-rooted need to make predictions about their environment, and this seems to play a central role in our enjoyment of music. This theory was popularized by Leonard Meyer in the 1950s. Music that is too predictable seems boring. On the other hand, if it is too chaotic, then it is frustrating and seems unrewarding. The trick to composing a good piece is to find the balance between the two.

Composers can use subtle variations in timing, pitch and tone to keep listeners excited, yet use structures and constant chords to give the music elements of predictability. Musicians can use many methods to vary the message they are giving, from the chords to the type of instrument used. Mixing the predictable with the unexpected is one way that musicians can increase the enjoyment of their music.

If the listener predicts the outcome (i.e. the upcoming sounds and structure) correctly, their brain rewards them with a hit of dopamine. If the outcome is unexpected, then no dopamine is released. If the music progresses in a way that is unexpected, but is then resolved and brought back to a familiar structure, the brain explodes and the listener has a complete ear-gasm. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

The overall pattern of music can even mimic our overall emotional life. Just as the written word must have a beginning, middle and end (like we perceive that life will), music has an emotional beginning, middle and end – the introduction, build up, climax and closure.

The Music in The Madness

Hopefully you now understand a little bit more about how and why music elicits an emotional response. It’s a combination of factors, from brain synchronization to the release of dopamine. It has to do with anticipation, tension and release. It’s a language, and the more fluent you are the more you can understand how different compositions can lead to different feelings.

For example, a sequence of chords going up tends to feel rising and uplifting. A sequence going down can feel heavy and like a descent into more negative emotions. Trance music creates tension with holding chords (those ‘hands up in the air’ moments), before releasing into a settled chord to boost the pleasure and create the ‘drop’.

Certain tonalities are known to have certain effects. The minor chords are generally known as sad, while the majors are happy. Loud and fast noises demand the brain’s attention and excitement. Slower tempos often convey sadness. Simple, constant chords are pleasant, while complex tri-tones can create a feeling of disharmony.

There’s also a sort of ‘mystical’ element to music. Sure, we can measure the brain activity and hormonal reactions of listeners, but great composers have been opening up human emotional centers since before we ever mapped the brain. Yes, music creates emotion and stimulates the brain. And this is because music is an internal language, known and loved only by human souls.


Image Credits:

Feature Image: Photo by PxHere / CC0 1.0 – Caption: Music can make us feel all sorts of emotions

Body Image: Photo by Pexels / CC0 1.0 – Caption: Keeping the beat is one of the primary joys of listening to music



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About Joseph Timmons (9830 Articles)
I am the Father of 5 and a "Would Be Philosopher of Idiocy" - Author and Writer for several Blogs and Online Magazine. Review Journalist, Musician and Audio Buff. Follow Me and I'm Sure to Entertain.

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