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Why Does Music Make Us Feel Things?

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Illustration: Benjamin Currie/Gizmodo

Once a day, at least, I’ll tear up listening to music. Just a drop or two, or not even a drop, just a pre-cry convulsion, a sudden seizure of feeling. More often than not, I have no specific memories tied to the song in question—sometimes I’m hearing it for the first or second time. If you asked me why the song was affecting me, I might point to a certain guitar tone or vocal inflection, but that would suggest another question, namely: Why is that guitar tone or vocal inflection affecting me? And the same, of course, applies to other moods that music had been known to generate, such as joy or annoyance. I could not answer the question, but, thankfully, there’s a vast literature on just this topic. For this week’s Giz Asks, we spoke with some of its authors.

Elizabeth H. Margulis

Director of the Music Cognition Lab at Princeton University and the author of On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind

In a classic paper, Patrick Juslin and Daniel Västfjäll propose several mechanisms that underlie emotional responses to music. At the most basic level, brain stem reflexes ensure that sudden, loud sounds can startle. Evaluative conditioning—the repeated pairing between a musical sequence and some other object or circumstance—can imbue the sounds with associative power. Music can elicit internal simulation of its expressive patterns, potentially leading to emotional contagion. It can evoke imagery, thoughts, or memories that themselves trigger emotional response. And finally, it can fulfill or violate expectations that people sustain while listening.

To this list, I would add that music can draw people out of their ordinary mode of attending to the world and into a subjective, participatory involvement with the sounds that many people find highly pleasurable. The diverse ways that making and experiencing music can involve feelings surely extend far beyond this list as well.


Psyche Loui

Assistant Professor of Creativity and Creative Practice at Northeastern University and Director of the Music, Imaging, and Neural Dynamics Laboratory

My lab studies music and the brain, and I have always been fascinated by why music can give us the chills, also known as frisson. In one study, we specifically asked the question of whether there are any differences in brain structure that might explain individual differences in how music makes people feel. We ran an online survey on several hundred participants, and from those we found that there were some people who consistently reported getting chills frequently when listening to music, whereas other people did not report getting chills much at all. We brought two groups of these subjects into the lab, one group who got chills all the time and another group who did not. We made sure that both groups were the same in age and gender and had the same level of musical training and the same personality factors. We verified that people who reported getting chills were indeed experiencing changes in their physiology—their heart rate was faster and their skin was more conductive (sweatier) during particular moments in which they reported getting chills in response to music. Finally, we scanned the brains of these two groups of people and showed that those who got chills all the time had higher volume of white matter connectivity between auditory areas of the brain and areas of the brain that were important for emotion and social experiences. So brain connectivity, in particular between auditory and emotion centers of the brain, seems to be linked to the ability of music to make us feel things. In a way, music is an auditory channel towards the emotional centers of the brain. Perhaps that is why we make playlists for the people we love.


Daniel Shanahan

Associate Professor, Music Theory and Cognition, The Ohio State University

It’s such a strange thing to actively and willingly listen to music that might make you sad. Many of us do it, but it’s not entirely clear why. In a 2011 study, Sandra Garrido and Emery Schubert found that about half of the people they asked either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I like to listen to music which makes me feel sadness or grief.” Sadness and grief are big topics, but I like the idea that they can be tied to aspects of empathy and compassion. David Huron and Jonna Vuoskoskiargue said that listening to sad music is tied in with empathy—people that enjoy listening to sad music also tend to score high on measurements of “empathic concern,” which is another way of saying that they’re more compassionate. There are evolutionary advantages to empathy and compassion, and it makes sense to me. I’m looking forward to seeing where that research goes.

In terms of nostalgia, there’s been quite a bit of work on “reminiscence bumps” and music. That is, we tend to remember things more from certain times in our life (often our teenage years), as compared to other periods. It’s been theorized that this is because we remember things more during periods of change and transition, and our teenage years are a period of intense change. I think this is why the Spotify “Time Capsule” playlists are always pretty spot-on. It’s probably not that hard to figure out your age, and your broad preferences in music, so triggering these nostalgic responses is really just about finding those most popular songs from when you were a teenager.

Music can also really help us to feel connected to others. I think there is a very good case to be made that one of the main evolutionary functions of music is to promote and facilitate social bonding and cohesion. If we think about dance, and ritual in general, it serves as a way of creating some sort of group coherence. Music facilitates that.

When the world went into lockdown in March, so many people were surprised to see these people going to the balconies to play music with one another. To me, it made perfect sense: We need sociality, bonding, and compassion in our lives, and music is one of the best avenues for getting at this need.

Diana Deutsch

Professor, Psychology, University of California, San Diego, and the author of Musical Illusions and Phantom Words: How Music and Speech Unlock Mysteries of the Brain

The desire to perform and listen to music occurs in all cultures, and the reason for this impulse been debated for hundreds of years. In the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin argued that music evolved primarily for courtship. Soon after, the philosopher Herbert Spencer argued for a broader explanation, writing that music developed not only for love songs, but also from vocalizations produced in a range of different emotional states, including joy, triumph, grief, and rage. A recent large-scale survey at Harvard University has shown that, indeed, we can identify the function of different types of music, such as dance songs, lullabies, and love songs, regardless of the culture in which it is produced. So music serves a number of different functions, and can induce a variety of different moods, such as joy, love, anger, and a feeling of community, to name a few.

For music to be successful, we must want to hear it. What are the characteristics of a piece of music that make us want to hear it over and over? In the 1920s, Irving Berlin proposed a set of rules for writing a successful popular song. He argued that simplicity is very important, and also that the music should have familiar elements. He wrote, ‘There is no such thing as a new melody” and argued that effective songwriters “connect the old phrases in a new way, so that they will sound like a new tune.” This advice proved very successful. Also, a main reason why some songs are so “sticky” is that they contain many repeated phrases. This repetition causes the song to be stuck in our heads—and, in general, the more familiar we are with a song, the more we want to listen to it again.


Mariusz S. Kozak

Associate Professor of Music and Music Theory at Columbia University and the author of Enacting Musical Time: The Bodily Experience of New Music

Emotional experiences associated with music are highly idiosyncratic. You and I could be listening to the same song and feel completely different things. Or you could be listening to the same song on different occasions and feel different emotions each time. Because of that, I believe that music doesn’t really make us feel things as much as it creates a structure, or a template, that allows us to have (sometimes very powerful) emotional experiences. In my work, I’ve come to regard music as a technology that humans invented at the dawn of humanity to create and maintain communities. This technology operates on three levels: physiological, cognitive, and social.

At a physiological level, changes in the basic acoustic features of sound—like tempo, timbre, or loudness—create measurable effects in our bodies. For example, a fast tempo or increasing loudness might increase our heart rate, while a scraping sound might cause us to tense up. Because these sounds are made by concrete objects and events in our environment, through our knowledge of these associations they can lead to basic sensations of pleasure or displeasure, much like they do in our other senses.

Next up is the cognitive level. We all grow up hearing music particular to our culture, and through mere exposure to this music we develop a stylistic competency. For example, most listeners who are enculturated in Western popular music can tell the difference between a verse and a chorus of a song they’ve never heard before. Or they might have a sense when a harmonic sequence sounds like it’s about to come to a resting point. This stylistic knowledge leads to us having certain expectations about how the music is most likely to unfold: what harmonies are most likely to accompany a particular melody, or what kind of a beat is typical for a song in this or that context. Musicians will then play with those expectations to create moments that might feel like points of tension and relaxation in the music, leading to more complex emotions such as chills or awe or desire.

Finally, there is the social level, which, I think, is the most important to how music elicits emotions. The world over, music almost always takes place in the context of some social activity that involves multiple participants. In these situations, it colors our relationships with others by providing a structure for experiencing, if not exact, then at least very similar emotions. It does that mostly through a steady beat with which everyone can synchronize. This, in turn, leads to positive feelings of social belonging and cooperation, which serve to strengthen the community and help it prosper.


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