The Power and Emotion of Music

How connected do you feel to music? Music is innate to humans, no known human culture has survived without some sort of music (Levitin). Music can be an extremely powerful object, but what makes music have such a dominant presence in all of humans’ lives? After all music is just sound waves traveling through the air that our ears pick up on.  Throughout this post I will look at the physical properties in sound associated with the emotion we feel in music. I will also be delving into to the effects of how culture, and the factors that influence our lives as we are growing up change how we experience music. I’m also going to be looking at the neurological reasons for why humans can draw so much emotion out of music.


The mechanics of the ear, and certain parts of the brain let one examine the links between the mind, emotion, and music. Before talking about sound it is necessary to look at what allows makes the sound waves to be heard. The ear in a sense translates the sound waves into something that can be interpreted by the brain, in addition it has the role of maintaining balance which allows for movement. It is experienced by many that music makes one want to move and dance. The ear offers the initial connection between sound and movement; the link that the ear offers between sound and movements is a potential reason for why we can be physically moved by music. Another part of the brain that also can play a role in music comprehension is the cerebellum.


The cerebellum plays a critical part in timing, and in coordination and movement of the body. When we run or walk we do it at a constant pace, and when a dolphin moves its tail to swim, or a humming bird moves its wings to fly—the movement they do is also always near a constant rate because of the cerebellum. People without functioning cerebellums have loads of trouble in walking (Ivry). The cerebellum, although not traditionally thought to deal with emotion itself, plays a large part in emotion. The cerebellum contains huge links to the emotional centers of the brain, such as the amygdala which is involved in remembering emotional events (Friston). A link between the ear and cerebellum can be seen below:

cerebellum link

With modern technology in brain imaging there is evidence of strong activations in the cerebellum when listening to music versus little activations when listening to noise (Ivry). The cerebellum is activated when people will listen to music they like while not being activated when listening to music they do not like (Menon). The connection between the ear and cerebellum, and the connection from music to emotion come through movement offer an explanation for why music can make us get up and move around.


Intense musical emotion what many people call “musical chills”  or a “shiver down the spine” there is an association with the brain regions involved with reward, motivation, and arousal also there is an increase in the neurotransmitter dopamine (Panksepp). Dopamine is the neurological chemical responsible for enjoyment from food, sex and other tangible rewards that play a vital role in humans’ survival. Although music is not something considered necessary for life it contains this powerful response. The way the brain’s circuitry activates when music is heard is identical to biologically relevant stimuli (Blood). A scientific explanation for why music produces these strong responses is that music had an extremely significant role in ancient humans’ lives which is why it elicits such a powerful response to us today, and perhaps still plays a role in our lives.


In order to be moved by music both physically and emotionally it helps a large amount to have a readily predictable beat (Levitin). Scientifically theorizing, this potentially has a connection with the timing and the cerebellum mentioned earlier. Chaotic sounds and noises are not going to appeal to emotions like music will. That is what makes music more powerful, music in its basic sense is simply organized sound (Levitin), and this organized sound with measureable beats is something humans can connect to on an emotional level. Chaotic sounds that you hear in nature or in manmade soundscapes all around the world are not likely to appeal to your emotion. Leaves falling, and the loud bus noises we hear during this time of year at Duke will not be very emotional to us because these sounds have no beat or rhythm; they are not what we consider music. But when we take sounds and put them in a meaningful order with structure they can begin to appeal to the emotion more. Rhythm is important to modern music as well as preindustrial society’s music. To get a look at the role of music in the lives of our early ancestors from 50,000 years ago one can look at societies that are not industrialized yet. In those societies rhythm has a large importance of the music they produce. From this we assume that our cave men ancestors 50,000 years ago would also bang their drum bones, and play their bone flutes incorporating timing and meter into their music.


Why do we respond to music the way we do? Is it something innate in our minds that has been ingrained into them over thousands of years of evolution, or does it have to do with our cultural surroundings? Based off what experts think of the two, there are claims to both sides of the argument, and others that claim it is a mix.  Does the emotion we feel from music have to do with how we were raised in our surroundings (culture), or is it a universal connection between all humans? Culture plays a large role in the emotion we feel from a certain music piece. (Balkwill) In western culture we generally perceive music with an increased tempo, and higher pitched notes as happier. (Balkwill) So for a song like this:

or this:


where the songs are in minor key which to a western person will sound more sad where if this was played to someone from China where music is naturally more slow and this song might not stand out as a sad song. To compare see the innate emotional responses to music researchers played songs a small native African tribe called the Mafas. Both Westerners and Mafas interpret majority of major as happy as well as pieces with a higher tempo as happy (Fritz). According to these experiences it is the innate part of the mind that views major as happy as well as a fast tempo. In Middle Eastern music many of the songs are in minor, both the happy and the sad songs. Therefore in Middle Eastern music the cultural effects that one is surrounded with when growing up will start to override what is innate to our brain. As one is constantly exposed to minor music in Middle Eastern the emotion one feels would start to perceive that all minor key music can be either happy or sad, this weakens the innate connection of the minor key to sadness.


It is easier to memorize a song than it is a string of spoken words. The timing and the meter in a song is what contributes to keeping the word order exact and being able to pair a word with a beat. Before the existence of written language it is theorized that cavemen would use songs to keep track of information and carry on important instructions for survival (Levitin). So there could potentially be a song for how to cook a certain food, or how to build a shelter. The timing of the music is what helps memorize a song rather than just a list of words. When pairing up a word from the lyrics to the rhythm of the song there is a connection in the brain which makes the whole thing easier to remember. Theorizing evolutionarily, people that could better emotionally attach to songs would be able to memorize them more easily than other people. Thus those that emotionally connect to the music more have more knowledge which serves as an evolutionary advantage. Music used to be something that was inclusive for everyone. Everyone performed together and there was no subject of performer and listener in music. That began to fade away about 500 years ago in western culture when there became a distinction from the performer and the listener. From there the gap between the two only has grown and now to be a performer, one needs to be considered highly skilled in their musical category. This correlation can be looked at from a cause and effect stance: as it became very easy to write down and spread information through technology there was no longer a need to sing to keep the instructions memorized. Thus there would be a large decrease in music in people’s lives which is where the shift towards listening to performers come from. This is could either be a simple coincidence or one of the potential reasons for why the decrease in people producing their own music.


The effect of our surroundings when growing up play a big role in our connection to music. That is why friend groups often time have the same taste in music. This effect of surroundings has a lot to do with neuroscience and nostalgia, for example the song that was played at high school graduation—a song that potentially would have had no significance to someone would now be a very happy song if graduation was a fantastic milestone event for that person. What was talked about earlier how it is often music that produces emotion—not random sounds—can have exceptions with our surroundings. For example, a small sound clip of 5 seconds of a creaking door could have no significance to most people, but to a few that were shocked in their youth from that sound through scary movies or real life experiences could be very frightened because of the sound clip.


What is it that makes music so catchy? People have different tastes in music and that is strong support for the effects of culture and our surroundings on how we perceive music. If there was no effect from our surroundings we would all have the same musical taste. Although there is a certain catch that many songs have and that can be called groove, something that keeps the song going forward and enjoyable to listen to. For example, the song superstition by Stevie Wonder is a song that is considered to have a lot of groove in it and many people will find the song enjoyable to listen to.

A key component of groove is that it is not predictable the beat in superstition has a slightly different aspect in the pattern of the drums each time they are played. This keeps the listener on mental toes and tuned in to the song (Levitin). A key component of a groove and musical emotion is “violating” our expectation, these “violations can occur in any domain- the domain of pitch, timbre, contour, rhythm, tempo and every part of the song” (Levitin). These violations are what separates an emotionally flat song to something like Beethoven’s 5th where in the first 10 seconds the listener does not know when the music will come. Due to the rests the piece that keep the listener on their toes and drawn to the song (Cooper).


This draw to a song can be narrowed down to an algorithm and nowadays that is what a lot of pop music is—following a certain formula to best appeal to the way our brains were designed to enjoy music. In this example combining up popular country songs, and seeing how similar they all are it is pretty apparent that the music producers have gotten very good at this formula.

Culture and evolution, as well as the physical properties of a song, all combine (and can combine in different way) to form the emotion and power we draw from our music. Researching music and emotion has given me a better understanding of music and I am more aware of the emotion I feel when listening to music. There are many different aspects to what can make a song happy to one person and some of these reasons contrast with each other, the studying emotional connections to music is a fairly recent topic in scholarly works and it is still so hard to do because so much of it relates to complex chemicals and activations in the brain. We still much to learn of how the brain works and still have a lot of trouble learning about the complexity of it. The large role that music plays in our lives can be boiled down to its connection on a deep emotional level to all humans.


Balkwill, Laura-Lee, and William Forde Thompson. 1999. A cross-cultural investigation of the perception of emotion in music: Psychophysical and cultural cues. Music Perception: An

Interdisciplinary Journal 17 (1): 43-64.


Blood, Anne J., and Robert J. Zatorre. 2001. Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 98 (20): 11818-23.


Cooper, Barry. 2011. “Beethoven’s Uses of Silence”. The Musical Times 152 (1914). Musical Times Publications Ltd.: 25–43.


Friston, Karl J. 1994. “Functional and effective connectivity in neuroimaging: A synthesis.” Human Brain Mapping 2 (1‐2): 56-78.


Gagnon, L., and I. Peretz. 2003. “Mode and tempo relative contributions to ‘happy-sad’ judgements in equitone melodies.” Cognition & Emotion 17 (1): 25-40.


Ivry, Richard B., and R. Eliot Hazeltine. 1995. “Perception and production of temporal intervals across a range of durations: Evidence for a common timing mechanism.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 21 (1): 3-18


Levitin, Daniel J. 2006. This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. New York, N.Y.: Dutton.

Levitin, David, and Paikin, Steve. 2011. “David Levitin: Why Music Moves Us.” The Agenda with Steve Paikin.

Menon, V., and D. J. Levitin. 2005. “The rewards of music listening: Response and physiological connectivity of the mesolimbic system.” Neuroimage 28 (1): 175-184.


Panksepp, Jaak. 1995. “The emotional sources of ‘chills’ induced by music.” Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal 13 (2): 171-207


Salimpoor, Valorie N., Alain Dagher, Mitchel Benovoy, Kevin Larcher, and Robert J. Zatorre. 2011. “Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music.” Nature Neuroscience 14 (2): 257-262.

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