Monday, April 6, 2015

Music on the Mind

Image source: wphf.org

Cat Stevens’ ‘Father & Son’ comes to mind for me. I’m talking about music that evokes a genuine emotional response…that magic combination of rhythm, melody and lyrics; a universal language that allows people to feel things and communicate in ways that words often can’t. Music can be so powerful that those feelings can transcend time, drumming up memories of moments and music past.

It’s hard not to wax lyrical about music – it’s got a special something that most people can relate to. Neuroscientists have been trying to find the answer to this for years, looking at the brain ‘on music’ and what’s happening up there. The findings in an article Why We Love Music by Jill Suttie from Greater Good are interesting.

The pleasure hormone dopamine is released in the brain when people hear a favorite song. For songs we don’t know, our brains process the sounds through memory circuits, searching for something recognizable. If that recognizable something is found, people tend to enjoy the song more – the dopamine hit comes from having our predictions confirmed. Neuroscientist Valorie Salimpoor from McGill University likens it to a roller coaster ride: “You know what’s going to happen, but you can still be pleasantly surprised and enjoy it.”

These findings also help explain why people like to listen to the same song over and over again. We’re all guilty of it. We’re searching for that emotional hit.

Ed Large, a music psychologist at the University of Connecticut likens music to language. When people get together to listen to music, their brains synch in rhythmic ways, inducing a shared emotional experience. Other research supports Large’s theories about the impact of music on the brain, with different styles of music creating different rhythmic patterns. But while people’s brains might look the same, the emotional experience they derive from music is different. We’re all a product of our music preferences, borne by our personal history of listening to or performing music. We also have music associations – listen to a song that was popular back in high school and it’s hard not to feel a twinge of nostalgia.

Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time includes some gems from throughout the ages. Which way to the roller coaster?

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