By: Laura Matsuda
It is currently common knowledge that music is essential to humans, so much so that it can be considered some people’s passion. Ranging from restaurants to school, we are constantly surrounded by music. Music is able to touch on a range of emotions and allows artists and performers to express their views of the world and make criticism when needed. It is able to bring awareness to certain topics, such as racism and climate change, and change people’s opinions.
Music has been proven to bring several benefits and entertainment to humans but have you ever thought about why humans find music so enjoyable and how it is able to impact us so deeply?
The brain’s reward system
While listening to music, dopamine is released in the mesolimbic reward system, a system that is related to rewarding and cognitive processes. The dopamine release seen while listening to music can be also seen when eating or receiving money, something that evolution has provided to humans since eating is crucial for survival.
When chills go down your spine when listening to music, physiological changes, such as increased heart rate and respiration, happen, as chills have been proven to be the point in the song where the most dopamine is released. In a song that you are familiar with, both your favourite passage in a song and the anticipation for it release dopamine, making listening to music biologically enjoyable.
There is, however, a small percentage of the world (3-4%) that do not enjoy music at all. The lack of interaction between the auditory networks and the reward system do not allow people with anhedonia to enjoy music, as no dopamine is released, nevertheless they do receive enjoyment from other actions that release dopamine.
Music and emotions
Music is able to evoke and validate emotions such as joy, anger and sadness. That happens due to the fact that the brain is able to process music syntax the same way it processes language syntax, therefore music is perceived as a language. Our brains are programmed to respond differently to different types of sounds in nature and in music, tempos and volume, such as slow and quiet and fast and loud, can trigger the brain and its different responses. Several studies have proven that upbeat-sounding music is able to improve mood and make a person overall happier when compared to someone who listened to more melancholic music. Nostalgia is an emotion commonly associated with music and certain songs, as when listening to a song while the brain is in rapid development (ages 12- 22), a strong neurological connection is made to the song. When listening to the song again later on, dopamine is released in the hippocampus where long-term memories are stored and the dopamine system in the hippocampus is released.
Studies have shown that everyone interprets music and feels emotions differently, especially those from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. The same song or piece will not transmit the same message to two different people, so much so that oftentimes, the listener’s or performer’s interpretation of a piece may be extremely different from the composer’s intentions in the first place. Personal memories and experiences are able to influence the interpretation of certain sounds and the way certain emotions are felt, however culture is also highly influential, as sounds can be interpreted differently.
Benefits of listening to music
Besides the entertainment aspect of music, there are also mental and physical benefits that are connected to music. Music has been proven to reduce cortisol levels and impact the autonomic nervous system. In 2013, there was a study where three subjects were exposed to a stressor while one was listening to relaxing music, the other one was listening to water noises and the last one was not listening to anything. The subject listening to music was able to recover faster from the stressor.
A physical benefit connected to music is that it is able to improve endurance and performance. When exercising, it has been discovered that when listening to strong beats and fast paced music, people pick up the pace. While listening to music with a strong beat, the perception of exertion is modified, therefore it seems as if less effort is being put in. With all attention going to the music, muscle pain and increased breathing are ignored, tricking the brain into believing that you are not tired.
Music is seen all around and us humans benefit from it in several ways. Music is able to improve a human’s quality of life and help one’s mental and physical health. The science behind the brain’s love for music is quite deep, however studies have shown that it is connected to the dopamine release and reward system. Music is more than notes, it is able to connect to emotions and influence how we feel through natural and spontaneous brain responses and once again dopamine release.