Music And The Brain

Music is a universal human language, and all cultures express themselves through music in one form or another. This universality is perhaps not surprising, given that the impact of music on the brain can be likened to a variety of other pleasurable stimuli…

Take It From The Top

Music is an important element of most people’s lives, particularly during teenage years when brains are very open to new stimuli. Of course, levels of engagement with music vary from person to person, but some individuals’ passion for music can scale to very wide-ranging levels – sometimes bordering on obsessive, or even addictive. But as the short video below illustrates, the effect of music on the brain can in fact release dopamine in a similar way to sex or drugs…

Although presented in a more whimsical format here, these are essentially the findings of the well-known Blood and Zatorre study (2001).

The Shared Experience Of Music

Of course, there’s a lot more to music than simply ‘headphones in, dopamine out’ – much of the pleasure derived from music comes from shared experience in a social group, which can incorporate a sense of occasion, belonging, bonding, spontaneity, adventure and communality. These factors are exemplified in the experience of attending a concert by a favourite artist, or a music festival, but even listening to music at home often draws upon social factors – you may have been given an album by a friend, or if you find something new, you might share it with a friend later, thereby creating a bond point and shared social experience node which can reinforce a relationship.

Exploring The Evolution Of Music

This function may be somewhat different today, but the fundamentals would have been the same for our ancestors. In evolutionary terms, a more socially bonded group would have probably had a better chance of survival than a group which fragmented into an ‘every man for himself’ ethos once the going got rough. Therefore, any mechanisms which helped to enhance group cohesion would have conferred an evolutionary advantage – so it makes sense that our very physiology would reinforce such behaviour.

Of course, the ‘meaning of music’ – in this broad historical, evolutionary, social, psychological and physiological sense – is a huge area of study, and there is much we don’t yet understand. For some further reading on this topic, visit Dr Victoria Williamson’s page on the emotional origins of music

For the composers among you, it’s worth bearing in mind that music is an emotional journey, and if you want to provoke an emotional reaction, adding surprises to your score are a good way to do it – the unexpected creates a reaction, which can be counterbalanced (released/enhanced) by then returning to a familiar motif.

“…highly emotional points in music are typically associated with low-probability events. A similar thing occurs in nature, when unexpected events can cause profound emotional reactions such as shock, awe and joy. In music therefore, when we come across an unexpected tone or transition that affects us emotionally, we might be experiencing the effects of an ancient brain mechanism designed to react to low-probability effects in our environment.”


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