The Science Behind Why Music Makes Us Feel So Good
Music plays an important role in our lives. Our coming of age is marked by a personal soundtrack and we can evoke vivid memories and emotions by listening to music. People who make music can attest to this further and are said to have high levels of intelligence, especially if they can read and create original music by playing a variety of musical instruments or using their voice as an instrument in song. There is a lot of research about music and its relationship to intelligence.
If you have ever been moved by a piece of music or experienced a life changing live musical performance; if you’ve created music or have found solace in playing an instrument or listening to your favorite artist, you will be interested in the science behind why music makes us feel so good.
Enjoying music is unique to humans. Unlike food or sex, music isn’t necessary for our survival, but it is extremely rewarding and pleasurable. It taps into the same parts of the brain that pleasure from sex and food does. Music floods the brain with a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical in the brain associated with pleasure, motivation and reward.
Studies have shown that certain pieces of classical music will have the same effect on everyone. They trigger the same changes in the brain regardless of past musical experience or preference. Of course everyone is different and music will make us respond according to our own taste and familiarity. Our enjoyment is simply determined by whether or not we like it. However these investigations have shown that some music will cause our brains to respond unanimously and gives people a universal experience, especially when being enjoyed simultaneously like at an orchestral concert.
Neuroscientists Dr Valorie Salimpoor and Dr Robert Zatorre conducted research using PET scans (positron emission tomography) to detect the release of dopamine in the brain when subjects listened to their favorite songs. They later used MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to view the pleasure center of the brain where the dopamine is released and then mapped out its connection with other areas of the brain associated with emotion, learning, memory and decision making. It was these connections that were the most interesting revelation.
The pleasure center of the brain predicts what king of music we will enjoy based on the connection it makes to other parts of our brain, according to what our brain is ‘programmed’ to like.
“It predicts the reward that you’ll feel from a given piece of music based on similar types of music you’ve heard before. If you like it better than predicted, it registers as intense pleasure. If you feel worse than predicted, you feel bored or disappointed.” Virginia Hughes, National Geographic
New music fits into patterns already mapped out in the brain by our past musical tastes. It is pleasurable not only because it is familiar, but it deviates just enough to feel new and exciting. It doesn’t seem repetitive.
Music therefore can be used as a mood enhancer or elevator. For the brokenhearted, a sad song is empathetic and validating. It is an elixir of motivation to compel the completion of the most mundane of tasks. There are many ways to participate in and utilize music and broadening musical experience and taste can become a journey of self discovery, for like any art form, in music we see our humanity.
There are several ways to participate in music on a daily basis.
Listen to it.
Put on the radio, get out your old records, plug in your device. Whatever you are doing, music can be present in the background or the foreground. For example; listen to something energetic while you wash the car. Some classical music playing softly in the background is a great compliment to reading or studying.
Play an instrument. If you don’t know how, improvise or better still, learn. It is never too late and even without formal music reading education and training, anyone can tune into their own musicality and learn the intricacies of an instrument. Try a simple percussion instrument like a bongo or tambourine if you have rhythm or something more complicated like the piano or guitar with formal lessons. And sing. Sing your heart out. In the shower or the car, to your children. Do karaoke, make up songs and sing along to the ones you know and love. Singing is a fantastic stress reliever and can be meditative too.
Learn to read and understand music, the composition of a song, melody, lyric writing, different styles – the list is endless. Exploring music can be determined by your own personal interests. Maybe music history is your forte, or indulging in the classics. Read the biographies of your favorite musicians or artists, they are always extremely fascinating.
Find out about musical styles and instruments from around the world and try and witness them. Music is a wonderful way to learn about a culture while you are traveling. Make an effort to see a traditional show or concert every time you are abroad and broaden your musical horizons.
Music makes us feel so good and the benefits of music are many. It calms and soothes us when we are anxious or sad. It motivates and energizes us when we need incentive. It’s a great tool for distraction and redirecting our focus. It educates us and opens our minds to the common human experience, our history and our hope for the future.