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How and Why Humans Love Music

By Betty Jean Wolkenstein (someone who knows nothing of music theory)

Early Uses and Human Development

Listening to music releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical “messenger” between nerve cells, which functions primarily as an incentive for the brain to keep itself alive. Recent scientific discourse has inverted initial theories about the creation of language before music, and now it is believed that music predates language, used for communication between the earliest humans. As communication is vital to survival, and music is used as a language, the brain rewards the recognition of music, bred further into us over generations through survival of the fittest.

Why Music is so Innate to Humans

So we’ve established that music was originally for used survival, but exactly how did we develop recognition for it? It may very well have been an accident, based on a few interesting properties:

  • Humans love patterns – for example, the rustling of a bush indicating a predator – and music is the pattern, anticipation, prediction of rhythm and melody.

  • Entrainment utilises the human love for mimicry, adjusting our behaviour, motions and heartbeats to another system — music.

  • The interconnections between our auditory system and motor, visual, speech, and memory systems ingrain music recognition into our individual identity and community or societal identity.

Community and Society

As aforementioned, much of the development of music processing has been due to the social need for communication. Music does not fall short of the list of commonalities in history; dancing in a circle, pets in art, schadenfreude, being epicurean, needing and building community, etc. Acting as a communicative tool, music encourages us to express and share deeper emotions, memories, and rich history. It is no wonder how cultures have survived orally for thousands of years, for example, The Dreaming of many Indigenous Australian groups– with not a musical note classified and no writing system.

To demonstrate the warm home that music has carved out in our monkey brain, in both individuals and society, consider your reactions to people with musical anhedonia or agnosia; musical anhedonia is the neurological condition from which a person can recognise but not derive pleasure from music, while musical agnosia is the inability to recognise music. We react with empathy as if they had lost a limb.

Music and Chemical Responses

Recent research has determined that music genre or style does not particularly affect dopamine levels. Instead, music that people just enjoy, based on experience and memory, makes the brain light up. This explains the social phenomenon of pop songs, at a general but pleasurable 150 bpm with happy lyrics. To understand the chemical responses to specific musical progressions, one should understand just what exactly music is:

  • A sound definition of sound:

Sound is the vibration of air molecules, in the form of waves. The properties of sound, pitch and volume are due to frequency, the oscillations per second of the soundwave, amplitude, the physical compression of the soundwave, and harmonics, overlapping frequencies.

  • Sound processing:

Sound hits the eardrum and moves through the ossicles and to the cochlea. The properties of sound affect the liquid and hair cells in the cochlea differently, triggering the firing of electrical signals to the brain.

  • Frequency and harmonics are determined by the location of triggered hair cells.

    • Higher frequencies = base of the cochlea

    • Lower frequencies = apex of the cochlea

  • Amplitude increases the firing rate and bandwidth of signals.

Sound’s journey in the brain starts at the brainstem in the cochlear nucleus, and is sent to the auditory cortex, where it is consciously processed – but not yet music!

  • From sound to music:

The auditory system consists of two-way pathways all over the brain and stops along the way for further processing. It commonly overlaps with language processing, the visual field and motor sensations, which combine to recognise music. Dopamine and oxytocin (the “love” hormone) are released, while cortisol (the “stress” hormone) levels decrease.

It is known that major chords produce a positive response, minor chords a negative response, and dissonant chords an unpleasant response. This is reiterated in a study by Pallensen et al on Blood Oxygen Level Dependent imaging that found that the “alarm system” of the thalamus, brainstem and amygdala responses to minor and dissonant chord listening were larger than major chord listening. The subjects were also asked about the emotional connotations after each note, see Figure 1. In general, people enjoy the “stability” of notes that sound good together and are played together, while people dislike chords of frequencies that clash together and want them to be resolved. This is all based on our innate enjoyment of anticipation and pattern prediction.

Concluding Notes (haha)

Humans developed music as a survival instinct and a communication tool, based on innate human tendencies and enjoyment that coincide with musical properties. Music evolved with us when societies were founded on shared memories and experiences. These same inputs are what distinguish sound from music, thus bringing music to the core of our humanity. While a lot has been discovered about the cognitive science and psychology of music, there is still much to learn. In the meantime, we can all take a break and put on our favourite songs, letting our bodies naturally decipher the music.



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