Why does music affect our emotions?

Image: j_arlecchino via Flickr
Image: j_arlecchino via Flickr

Few people can honestly say that they have never been moved by a beautiful piece of music. You might find yourself crying to Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto or feeling so energized listening to Beastie Boys’ ‘Sabotage’ that you run that extra mile. In fact, music has the power to trigger a whole array of complex and sometimes sublime emotions. But do we have any clue about why this is happening?

With the help of modern neuroscience, the question of how music stirs our emotions is slowly unfolding. Using brain-imaging techniques, it is possible to see what is happening in the brain while we listen to music. And thanks to the patient researchers spending months and years mapping these effects, we now know that music often activates the same brain areas known to process other kinds of emotions. For example, playing harsh, inharmonious music increased the activity in the amygdala, which has been called the brain’s ‘heart of emotion’. Additionally, pleasant music has been shown to actually change the activity of the hippocampus – a part of the brain that decreases in volume following traumatic experiences and during depression. This has led many to believe that music therapy could offer huge benefits to people who are depressed.

The question of why music and emotion are so intertwined, however, is a harder nut to crack, but is inherently connected to why we make music in the first place. Fossilised evidence for the origins of human musicality doesn’t exist, and with the present lack of good ways to explore the issue, researchers investigating the origins of music tend to disagree with each other.

Image: byronv2 via Flickr
Image: byronv2 via Flickr

In one camp, we find researchers who are convinced that the development of music had an evolutionary importance. In other words, they believe people with musical ability had a better chance of survival, and could therefore spread the genes needed for musicality.

The evolutionary-oriented scientists promote a number of theories. One is that music played a role in courtship and sexual selection (as is the case of singing in birds), possibly giving credence to the idea that a man can woo a lover by strumming a guitar and singing tunefully. Another theory is that individuals within a group share musical experiences and, in this way, music acts as social glue, aiding cooperation and, ultimately, survival. Still others believe that music evolved through mother-infant singing: lullabies are thought to exist in all cultures, and singing is a powerful way to calm or energise babies, strengthening the bond between mother and child, and therefore increasing the chance of survival.

In the opposing camp are researchers who argue that music probably emerged as a so-called ‘exaptation’ (a side-effect of traits initially serving a different purpose, such as language). According to them, music or musicality is biologically useless, and an accidental consequence of our large minds and adept language skills – its ability to tease and please us has no meaning in the grand order of things.

For most of us, music being something that has evolved for a reason is an appealing idea. It is easy to intuitively say that evolution caused music, just based on the facts that music exists in all cultures and could be as old as the use of language itself. But evolutionary theories are not supported by much other solid proof. The lack of evidence is, however, not enough to discredit the evolutionary theories, and the same holds true for the exaptation idea. In other words, we need more evidence to prove/disprove any of these statements.

Many researchers point out that some aspects of these theories are testable using modern technologies. Searching for genes related to musical characteristics would be a practical way to try and start to prove the evolutionary origin of music. Finding a gene related to musicality would not be enough, however. These genes would need to relate to brain areas that control musical traits, which are only involved with the musical characteristic, and which don’t overlap with areas dealing with, for example, language.

So while these kind of experiments could fine tune, at least in part, why we are a musical species, we are not likely to find a clear answer to why that favourite song of yours never fails to give you the chills.


References and further reading

Abbott, A. Music, maestro, please! Nature 416, 12–14 (2002).

Fitch, W. T. & Fitch, W. T. The biology and evolution of music: a comparative perspective. Cognition 100, 173–215 (2006).

Honing, H., Cate, C., Peretz, I. & Trehub, S. E. Without it no music?: cognition , biology and evolution of musicality. Pholosophical Trans. 370, (2015).

Huron, D. Is music an evolutionary adaptation? Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 930, 43–61 (2001).

Koelsch, S. Towards a neural basis of music-evoked emotions. Trends Cogn. Sci. 14, 131–137 (2010).

Perlovsky, L. Musical emotions: Functions, origins, evolution. Phys. Life Rev. 7, 2–27 (2010).

Trainor, L. Science & music: the neural roots of music. Nature 453, 598–599 (2008).

Trainor, L. The emotional origins of music. Phys. Life Rev. 7, 44–45 (2010).

Article by Magdalena Kegel

April 20, 2015

After finishing her Ph.D. at Karolinska Institute in Sweden, where she plunged into metabolic and immunologic brain changes in psychotic disorders, she now enjoys warmer latitudes in Bali, Indonesia. Today she has turned her gaze towards science communication, and collaborates with an organisation treating mentally ill patients in the community in Bali. When not thinking about mental illness and science, she is a book-, animal and ocean lover and occasionally goes diving.

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