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Why does music move us?

Why does music move us?

Five answers to an eternal question

We’re all familiar with this: music can sometimes move us to tears. When we hear certain pieces of music or certain turns of phrase in them, it moves us like nothing else. Some of us get goose bumps or a tingling in the stomach or have to laugh out loud.

Why does music move us?

People have always been curoius about the inexplicably strong effect of sounds. In early cultures, the power of music was assumed to hold magical properties – which is why it fell under the jurisdiction of the medicine man, the tribal shaman. The ancient philosophers were also preoccupied with the question of why rhythm and harmony “penetrate most deeply into the soul,” according to Plato, and “seize it most strongly.” Even Eduard Hanslick, the notorious musical rationalist who in the 19th century resisted the assumption that music should transport or trigger emotions, knew exactly: “No art can cut so deeply and sharply into our soul. The other arts persuade, music assaults us. Not only faster, but also more immediate and intense is the impact of the tones.”

But what is the reason for this? The ancient philosopher Pythagoras believed he had figured it out. He had discovered that the string lengths of tones that sound good together (harmonize) have a simple integer relationship to each other (1:2, 2:3, etc.). Pythagoras did not yet know about the natural tone series – but he concluded that the whole universe must be based on mathematics. If we hear harmonic music, he thought, then our soul begins to resonate with the tones like an instrument: Music “tunes the soul to the harmony of the universe.” Musical effect as a resonance phenomenon between physics and the soul, so to speak – that’s what Pythagoras thought. Let’s try to give some other answers.

Answer 1: Hearing is a special sense

The sense of hearing is faster, more differentiated, more adaptive than any other of our senses. In millions of years of savannah life, it was essential for survival, being the nocturnal warning sense of Homo sapiens. Hearing is already active in the unborn child, from about the 28th week of pregnancy. As we begin to hear, we experience our being-in-the-world for the first time. Familiar sounds – especially the mother’s voice – give us a sense of security even in the womb. Since the child cannot have constant physical contact with the mother after birth, her voice then becomes a substitute for cuddling. Hearing sound waves is long-distance touch. In primates, the mother’s call causes the child’s fur to stand up – this is the goose bump effect, an effect of warmth and comfort. For the community, music does something similar. At some point, human hordes became so large that each member could no longer groom the others – singing took over the function of physical closeness. Lullabies, research says, even regulate cortisol levels in infants. What we hear quite literally “touches” us.

Answer 2: Music Stimulates Hormones

Much like in a microphone, sound waves are translated into electrical impulses in the inner ear. These impulses reach virtually all regions of the brain. In fact, the flexible neural network in people’s heads is specifically “calibrated” for music – the brain has evolutionarily developed the way it is today thanks to music. The nerve impulses, for example, reach the brain stem and thus have a direct effect on muscle reflexes, breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure – rhythm drives our motions. The impulses also activate the hippocampus, where social feel-good hormones are produced – we always associate music with a sense of community. Last but not least, the impulses stimulate regions in the diencephalon that are responsible for the release of dopamine. Dopamine – that’s the thrill in life: Food, eroticism, chocolate, technical toys (high-end gear or sports cars). If dopamine enters the system, we have fun and are able to learn. Music that is pleasant to us releases a whole host of opioids and endorphins. It’s like a little drug high – only the drug doesn’t come through the blood, but through the ear.

Answer 3: Music Speaks To Us

Our brain also has a specialized auditory center: the auditory cortex, the so-called “hearing cortex” in the temporal lobe of the cerebrum. This auditory cortex is more responsible for pitches and timbres on the right side, and for rapid sequences of sounds and rhythms on the left. The left side is also home to the speech center, which is particularly well versed in sounds that follow one another in rapid succession. In fact, music and language are processed by the brain in a common, inseparable network. Evolutionary biologists assume that the original human language was a singsong anyway, a mixture of melody and consonants. It is also a known fact that in spoken language we absorb more information via the speech melody than via the text. Conversely, our speech center is always active even with instrumental music. It is constantly searching for syntax and grammar in the tones – we think we understand what the tones are saying. When the brain recognizes quasi-linguistic patterns in music, it rewards itself – with happiness hormones.

Answer 4: Tension Creates Emotions

Music controls our emotions, changes our mood – already the ancient philosophers knew that. Their theory was quite simple: fast, moving melodies make us happy, slow, descending melodies make us sad. Later, a detailed musical “theory of affect” was developed from this. Today, music psychologists tend more towards a kind of “persona” theory. According to this theory, we listeners understand a piece of music as the emotional story of a fictitious person in whom we empathize. Brain researchers, on the other hand, explain our emotional involvement entirely in terms of the “tension” of listening to music. According to this, we are constantly making unconscious predictions about how the music will progress. These expectations are either fulfilled or thwarted by surprises – both of which lead to emotional sensations. The feelings are not in the music, but we produce them in the brain while listening.

Answer 5: Our Biography Listens In

It is often familiar pieces of music that move us in particular. Just as a certain smell or photograph can evoke clear or mysterious memories, a piece of music “stirs” memories of experiences and the past. Every person carries around in his or her brain his or her personal network of experiences. Ultimately, the individual structure of the brain is nothing other than the result of a biography anyway. This is because activities that are performed frequently lead to special neuronal condensations and circuits in the brain. A strong reaction to music can therefore simply have biographical reasons. We associate – consciously or unconsciously – a particular memory or experience with a melody, a singing voice, an instrumental sound, a change in harmony, etc. That is why we often evaluate pieces of music very differently. By the way, the emotional associations can also be negative. Some people simply can’t stand some music.

Hans-Jürgen Schal has been writing for many years about topics in music psychology and music neurology, most recently, for example, about “Music in the Brain”, “Music and Motivation”, “Music as an Ethical Model”.

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