In this post we’ll deep dive into the realm of music by unpacking exactly what it is, why we’re built to derive pleasure from it, how it elicits emotions, the connection between music and expectations, why music is medicine and more.
What Is Music?
All music is sound, all sound is energy and all energy vibrates at different frequencies.
Frequency is measured in Hertz (Hz) which represents the number of cycles per second. A cycle is how long it takes the air to come back to its original spot before it was interrupted.
When any object vibrates, it causes movement in the air particles. These particles bump into the particles close to them, which causes them to vibrate, creating a ripple effect. This movement, called sound waves, continues until the particles run out of energy. If your ear is within range of the vibrations, you hear the sound.
“Nothing is higher. Musical offering is supreme.” ― Shrivatsa Goswami
The Power Of Music
Music is one of the most powerful technologies humanity has ever invented. It has the power to transform how we think, feel and act. It has the power to connect and it even has the power to heal. Furthermore, it has the power to instantly transform our emotional state and consequently how we perceive, experience and interact with the world around us.
When asked in the movie Ten questions for the Dalai Lama what we can do to create peace, His Holiness responded with “More music festivals.” Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan said, “There will come a day when music and its philosophy will become the religion of humanity.”
Music pervades almost every area of our lives. As food is nourishment for the body, music is nourishment for the soul.
“Music in the soul can be heard by the universe.” — Lao Tzu
Music & The Brain
Not only is music woven into human culture, it’s woven into human DNA ― literally. In other words, humans are hard-wired to enjoy it.
When we hear music that we like, it activates the brain’s reward centres ― areas of the brain that encourage behaviours essential for survival ― triggering the release of a cocktail of pleasure hormones including adrenaline, dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphin.
Every time you allow yourself to be moved by a song, you lay down neural pathways in your nervous system for joy to traverse whenever you hear that song again.
Furthermore, research shows that music increases the body’s production of the antibody immunoglobulin A and natural killer cells — the cells that attack invading viruses and boost the immune system’s effectiveness — and decreases levels of cortisol — a stress hormone.
Music & Emotion
Music can evoke the whole spectrum of emotions that we associate with the human experience. But what is it about it that triggers these emotions? The answer revolves around expectations.
The brain constantly generates predictions based on external stimuli (a survival mechanism that evolved over millions of years). These predictions create expectations. When these expectations are violated ― either through changes in the melody, harmony, rhythm, pitch or timbre ― there is a sense of surprise. The sense of surprise produces a moment of tension before the music resolves which produces a moment of release. It is this process of tension-and-release, dissonance-to-consonance, suspension-to-resolution, that creates an emotional response.
When music is too simple, we tend not to like it, finding it too predictable. When it is too complex, we tend not to like it, finding it too unpredictable. Music, just like any art, has to strike the right balance between simplicity and complexity. Between predictability and unpredictability, between certainty and uncertainty, between familiarity and unfamiliarity and between the known and the unknown.
Skilled composers and musicians use this knowledge to manipulate the emotion within a song. They do this by knowing what their audience’s expectations are and controlling when those expectations will and will not be met. Depending on whether the expectation is met or not will determine what kind of emotional response is elicited.
In short, music is the formation, manipulation and violation of expectations.
Music & Expectations
To understand the connection between music and expectations, we first need to understand the mechanics of the brain.
The brain is ultimately designed to keep you alive so it does two things; it predicts and it protects. It predicts what’s going to happen in your environment (based on past experiences) and then it initiates behaviours to protect you.
Thus, as music unfolds, the brain makes predictions about what will come next. These predictions form expectations.
When you create an expectation, your brain perceives it as a potential for a reward (anything that’s going to enhance your survival). Thus, it releases dopamine (a pleasure hormone) to encourage you to pursue the reward. Your brain then tracks whether what you expected to happen actually matches with reality resulting in one of three outcomes:
- If your expectation is unfulfilled, then dopamine levels fall and you experience feelings of dissatisfaction.
- If your expectation is fulfilled, then dopamine levels remain stable and you experience feelings of satisfaction.
- If your expectation is exceeded, then dopamine levels rise and you experience feelings of euphoria.
“The setting up and then manipulating of expectations is the heart of music, and it is accomplished in countless ways.” ― Daniel Levtin
As with all preferences, our music preferences are influenced by past experiences and whether the outcome of those experiences was either positive or negative. This is because, just like any other pleasant sensory experience, we find comfort in familiarity and the safety that familiarity brings.
Musical preferences also have a large social component based on our knowledge of the singer or musician, what the people around us like and what the music stands for.
Why Music Is Medicine
Not only is music good for the mind, not only is it good for the soul, but it is also good for the body too. In fact, music, quite literally, can heal us.
Your body’s cells are constantly communicating with eachother by exchanging information via chemicals (hormones and neurotransmitters).
Positive states are a result of chemicals associated with pleasure such as dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphin and anandamide. The more positive your emotional state, the more effectively your cells can communicate and exchange information with eachother to maintain health which creates ease in the body.
Therefore, by activating the release of pleasure hormones, music increases the coherence of your cells. This allows them to exchange information and communicate more effectively with eachother which promotes health in the body.
Interestingly, the Chinese word for medicine, yao, is derived from the word for music, yue.
“Every disease is a musical problem. Its cure a musical solution.” ― Novalis
Pure (subtle) energy is electromagnetic radiation, light. It is simply frequency vibrating at very high frequencies, movement ― or put another way, sound.
Music has been and will always be part of the fabric of everyday human life. It taps into primitive brain structures involved with motivation, reward and emotion.
The emotions we experience from it are the result of having our expectations artfully and systematically manipulated by a skilled composer and the musicians who interpret that music.
As music unfolds, the brain constantly updates its estimates of what will occur next. As a by-product, we experience satisfaction when the brain’s expectations are met and euphoria when the brain’s expectations are violated in a way we perceive as positive.