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Why music affects our emotions

After the recent school assembly where the speaker discussed how music can help us feel better, it got me thinking; why does music have such a huge impact on our emotions? Music has always been a huge part of my life, whether it be to help me get excited for something, make me feel better when i’m sad, or just something that  is playing in the background throughout my life. There are certain songs that make me truly feel something deep within myself.

Music objectively doesn’t seem like something that could have such a huge impact on people- afterall, it is just noise assorted in different ways- but in reality it is a powerful part of our society. Songs involuntarily evoke emotions from us, not necessarily because we are aware of how well-composed the music is, but because we can relate to it. On a personal level, as well as bringing communities of people together, we find something we can relate to in music that brings out emotions.

Robert Zatorre, a neuroscientist at McGill University, has been trying to answer the question of why music can bring out such strong emotions in people. According to Zatorre, listening to music causes our brains to release dopamine, especially at points when there is an “emotional peak in a song”, which is unusual since our bodies typically release dopamine for things that are necessary for survival, like food or sex.

Zatorre and his team hypothesized that the dopamine release is derived from our love of patterns. Music follows many consistent patterns across songs so our brains are waiting to hear familiar rhythms and melodies, patterns that our brains have encoded already. An example of this is the triplet flow, which can be found in the majority of popular rap songs like Bodak Yellow, Bad and Boujee, and Panda. Since our brains like patterns, it is no surprise that rap songs with this flow are popular in mainstream music.

The actual variety of emotions that we feel from music, however, is explained by other scientific research. This includes the hypothesis that our brains can interpret music as speech, therefore allowing us to relate the pitch and sound of music to certain emotions. Speech areas our brains, like Wernicke’s Area, allow people to decipher the tone of others’ speech and the connotation of their voices. Thus, people have the ability to understand whether someone is happy, sad, or angry based solely on the way in which a person is speaking at the time. In fact, in music, we can derive meaning and emotion through both the lyrics of the song and the varying sounds weaved throughout the song.

The range of instruments and sounds within a song allow people to feel the emotions coming from the music as if it were words. This mistake by our brains is caused by neural overlap between areas of our brain that process music and speech. In a study led by Isabelle Peretz, a psychology professor at the University of Montreal, it was found that neural circuits for language and neural circuits for music have been recycled during evolution to be used for each others’ purposes.

The range of emotion which humans experience from music has turned music into a cornerstone of human culture and society. We bond with people over similar music taste not just because it is a shared interest but because it means that two people connect on the emotional level that a certain piece of music offers. This connection between music and emotion has allowed for the application of music preference as a type of personality test. Dating sites and social media platforms alike will ask people about their taste in music because it has become something of an identity for people around the world. In fact, schools like Tufts University have even gone as far as to base their roommate pairing process for incoming freshman largely on music preference questionnaires. Psychology students at the university have found it to be a largely successful and accurate way to measure compatibility among people. And while music preference certainly do not define individuals, the emotions that people connect to in music are an important unifier.

About the author

Margot Schwartz