Listening to music can undoubtedly be an emotional experience, but how often do you stop to think why that’s so? What is it about music that gets your blood pumping, stirs up memories of your first romance, or even puts a tear in your eye? Is it the symphony on stage or the symphony in your brain that creates these feelings? Scientists from around the world in the field of music cognition are attempting to answer how and why your brain can create such complex feelings. In light of this month's Music and Technology theme, it seems fitting to discuss some of the theories that have resulted from recent advances in technology and scientific thought that inform us as to how and why music makes us feel the way it does.

A participant in an EEG recording at the phonetics lab, Stockholm University
A participant in an EEG recording at the phonetics lab, Stockholm University

Where does the pleasure come from?

For centuries, people have experienced music as pleasurable, but only in the past two decades or so have scientists been able to use computer technology to scan the brain and see what is actually going on when people listen to music. A 2001 study done by two scientists based in Canada was one of the first to make the intriguing finding that similar regions of the brain become active when listening to music as when the brain engages in activities that have to do with survival, such as food and sex. This finding, as most in science do, began to raise many questions – why would the brain use similar neural resources when it comes to food, sex and music? The evidence suggests that music may have played an important role in our past as a species.

Autobiographical musical memory (the “Darling, they're playing our song” phenomenon)

One of the more easily explained theories as to why music may be able to elicit different emotions is that our brains have learned to associate pieces of music with particular times and places in our lives. Your brain learns to associate the feelings of a wedding with a trumpet playing Jeremiah Clarke’s infamous Trumpet Voluntary just by standing there at a wedding and hearing the music. That same trumpet can play Taps or the Last Post at a military funeral, and bring about all of the sadness that comes with losing a loved one.

Music can also act as an information highway that takes you right back to pleasurable moments in your life, like the first time you fell in love. This quality of music is currently being studied in patients with Alzheimer’s disease because the same part of the brain that makes music pleasurable is one of the last to atrophy during the course of the disease. This musical highway gives scientists a route to help patients access memories that were once thought to be forgotten.

Primitive arousal

The opening of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony
The opening of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony
When the opening chords of Beethoven’s Eroica sound, what is about those sounds that grab your attention? In an insightful 2008 paper, two music psychologists, Dr Patrick N. Juslin and Dr Daniel Västfjäll, proposed that one of many reasons that music can get our blood flowing is that from an evolutionary standpoint, loud sounds were things that our ancestors needed to pay attention to. If they didn’t react well to loud noises, they would have became someone else’s lunch. When the brain hears loud sounds that it failed to anticipate, it starts to pump adrenaline into the body to get ready to fight or run. This extremely important quality of our ancestors may have carried down through the centuries and may add to the reason why no-one asks for the volume to be turned down when listening to the end of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

Expectation

It’s not as immediately obvious, but also of interest to many music scientists is the idea of expectation in music. One of the first to postulate the idea that musical expectation was at the root of our emotional experiences was Leonard Meyer. He noted that when we listen to music we don’t necessarily come in with a blank aural canvas, but rather a set of expectations that our brains will either accurately predict or be surprised by. Meyer believed that music’s power resided in our brain’s ability to predict what happens next.

Much of the music cognition literature suggests that as people grow up in a culture, they quickly begin to learn how their culture’s music “works”. With this knowledge, they are then able to unconsciously track and appraise musical events based on what they have heard in the past. Meyer’s ideas were expanded on greatly with the work of many music scientists, especially Dr David Huron in his book Sweet Anticipation, which has provided the music cognition community with a wealth of ideas that are needed to be tested using behavioral and neuroscientific tools.

The future of music cognition

Of course, no model proposed by science will ever completely capture what happens inside your skull, but as more technology becomes available and the field continues to grow, more questions will become answered. Science and technology might be able to answer questions previously thought unanswerable. Researchers in some labs are currently looking at whether or not animals can experience music. Much research is being devoted to investigating how shared neural resources of language and music can help those who cannot speak, perhaps due to autism or a stroke.

More importantly, though, more questions will be generated. As new technologies emerge and more ideas are theorized, music scientists are coming closer to understanding why humans are so obsessed with music.

Next time you are about to listen to your favorite piece, take a moment and wonder why music can make you feel the way it does. It may even make the experience more mystifying.

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