Why is music so pleasurable? It’s pretty clear why things like food and sex would give us pleasure, as they are fundamental to human survival and propagation. But a sequence of sounds?
Studies have shown that, without a doubt, our brain reacts to music in a similar manner as it reacts to good food, sex, and certain drugs. Neuroscientists at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, used magnetic resonance imaging in 2001 to observe the brain areas that were activated by music, and in the limbic and paralimbic areas they found the same rush of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in pleasurable activities, as with food, sex and addictive substances. It was a fascinating discovery because music is abstract, unlike food or sex. Apparently we can experience physiological responses to anticipation and excitement – simply over what the next sound will be.
What could it be about music that makes it so powerful a drug on its own? It may have to do with how our brains just love predicting and decoding patterns. Early psychological theories on emotion suggest that music sets up aural patterns that coax our mind into unconsciously predicting what comes next. If the prediction is correct, we receive a little reward – a jolt of dopamine. The little game of back and forth with the music and the expectations results in a pleasurable little emotional dance.
However, that doesn’t answer the question about our need (or lack thereof) for music to survive or propagate the species. Musicologist David Huron of Ohio State University suggests that the practice of making mental predictions based on limited information has always been essential to our survival. He also suggests that the emotional tie-in is important to bypassing the logical brain and getting to the “gut feeling” involved, thus contributing to the likelihood of a good outcome. That is, sometimes we have to analyze a situation with limited information (what’s likely to happen next?) and predict the best course of action, and our instincts play an important part in guiding us to the right answer. These same players are involved in our mental “dance” with music.
Most of us have experienced the sudden swell of emotion upon hearing a particular piece of music, and it feels out of our control. Even though our mind knows it is “just” a sound, and there is nothing essential about the phenomenon, we can’t seem to turn off our automatic reaction, and nor can we always predict it. Huron says, “Nature’s tendency to overreact provides a golden opportunity to musicians. Composers can fashion passages that manage to invoke remarkably strong emotions using the most innocuous stimuli imaginable.” Thus it seems we both need and enjoy this complex interplay of expectations, predictive logic and emotions that music provides.
Adding another layer of complexity to the music enjoyment phenomenon is the fact that our personal reactions to music will have a cultural aspect to them. That is, if we are to have any expectations about a piece of music, we must have some context, or some rules in place regarding what’s normal and what’s not. These expectations will largely be based on what we’ve heard all our lives and what is considered acceptable in our culture and geographic area. For example, waltz rhythms sound natural to Western Europeans, while Eastern Europeans are more accustomed to rhythms that may sound complicated to those outside their region. The melodies and harmonies commonly heard in India do not work well on a piano. We also have individual tastes as far as musical complexity, with some people feeling stimulated by minimal music while others feel completely bored by it.
Musical styles may also have some similarity with languages. As with languages we don’t know, a musical style we aren’t familiar with may sound “all the same” to us, while music we know intimately may seem to have infinite complexity and interest. Who hasn’t heard someone say, “All that electronic music sounds the same to me,” or “I don’t like opera and all that screeching.” And if you don’t know Chinese, or opera, it may all sound pretty similar to your ear. But take a few classes, and the language begins to reveal itself.
Thus our response to music is clearly multi-faceted and culturally dependent. Understanding that there is probably a reason for taking pleasure in the process of listening, expecting, and predicting music may have to be enough for now. The complexities involved in understanding exactly why music makes you or I feel good continue to confound psychologists and musicologists; however, it can provide en endless supply of enjoyment while trying to find out.