A few weeks ago, I sat in a stuffy Gold Coast transit bus and waited for about an hour in the station for the bus just to begin rolling. This is not an isolated event.
I have spent many hours waiting idly in a non-moving bus, but this time I brought a pair of earbuds and had three playlists downloaded on Spotify. I found myself occupied, relaxed and content in a situation where I have historically been overwhelmingly bored and frustrated.
This experience prompted me to wonder: why is it that music conveys such emotion and causes such enjoyment? What is it about a sequence of varying sound frequencies that provokes contentment?
A line must be drawn, first, between lyrical and instrumental music. It is easy to discern meaning and emotion from lyrics—that’s the point of their existence, to convey emotion through literal meaning—but one must approach instrumental music abstractly, given that the emotion isn’t made obvious by language.
There is general scientific consensus that tasks that people are innately compelled to do and enjoy doing are the product of neurological chemistry. In this context, the relationship our brain has with our body is like that of a dog and its trainer. The brain motivates an individual to do something through a “pleasure/reward response.”
When you complete a task that is advantageous for your well being, the brain releases dopamine, in turn inducing the feeling of contentment and motivating the person to complete that task again. In concept, the process works similarly to training a dog.
The dopamine reward system is also correlated with eating, competing, having sex and listening to music.
This neurological process explains that humans chemically enjoy music but fails to explain why this process applies to music at all. The activities listed above that trigger dopamine secretion all can be reduced down to basic survival and natural selection. It is obvious why our brain and deoxyribonucleic acid rewards us to eat: it improves our chance of surviving long enough to reproduce. But listening to music doesn’t give you an evolutionary edge—it’s never a life or death choice when you decide to listen to music.
The leading theory to resolve this issue is our love of patterns. When humans were first evolving from primates, a distinguishing factor among us was our cognitive abilities. It was once extremely valuable to recognize patterns, whether it was that dark clouds meant rain or that twice every 365 days herds of animal migrate passed. In order to promote such pattern recognition, people evolved to reward it with dopamine.
Modern life doesn’t necessitate the ability to recognize patterns for surviving, but our body still holds onto the gene that rewards pattern recognition. Just one of the patterns humans recognize and get rewarded for is music. What differentiates music from random and incohesive noise is patterns. Our brain recognizes that, producing dopamine, thus producing the feeling of pleasure while listening.
Nonetheless, enjoyable music is far more complex than a simple repetitive pattern: it is a balance between the anticipated outcome of what comes next and something completely unexpected. The brain will release dopamine when the expected notes are played, but for us to not get bored of the expected, music has to contain some unanticipated notes. That’s why a genre such as jazz is not as engaging for some because it lacks a high amount of expected patterns.
This scientific explanation for our love of music is reasonable, plausible and provable, but it only scratches the surface of how music affects us. People don’t only feel pleasure when listening to music; there is an entire roller coaster of emotions that music can instigate within us, but as of now, there is only speculations to explain this phenomenon.
The argument of nature over nurture or vice versa applies to this situation as it does for many others. It is our nature to enjoy music and for it to provoke emotion, but it is up to nurture, or how someone is raised, to dictate what emotions you feel. More specifically, it is up to the cultural environment in which you were raised.
When the brain is first developing, it draws connections between the emotions of a situation and the music that accompanies. For example, minor keys only conjure sadness because they often accompany sad scenes in movies, and slowly, our brain solidifies the connection between the music and emotion to a point in which the situation doesn’t need any context for the music to provoke that emotion. But that’s all a figment of Western culture—what may sound typical to one group of people is atypical for another.
The universality of music ends at the simple fact that everyone enjoys it. The diversity of music makes it such a complex issue to tackle, but an important one nonetheless. It has been interwoven with human culture for millennium and is a true testament of our empathy and the beauty of the human mind.