The science behind why music makes us feel good

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An Overview:

Many years ago, Valorie Salimpoor, a young neuroscience undergraduate had a life-changing experience when she went out for a drive. Confused & unable to figure out the course of a carrier to follow, she went for that drive to lighten up. Along the drive with the radio switched on she could feel the tempo of the song & tranquillity of the violin playing in the foreground. The intense rush of emotions going through her with the song playing made her pull over to the side to enjoy it thoroughly. She felt happy & elated when the song got over, which made her wonder about the effect the song had on her. Much earlier prior to the drive, she was confused & depressed. It was at this juncture that she decided that she would spend the rest of her life figuring out the effects of music & rewarding experience.

Today, Dr. Valorie Salimpoor is a researcher of the Rotman Research Institute, Baycrest center in Toronto, Canada. She has done numerous studies & research on the neurology of human’s love for music & positive experiences. The effects of music mostly an emotionally rewarding experience have intrigued many since music does not have any inborn value when compared to sex or food. So how does music make you move away from your brooding mood to a happier frame of mind? For that, first, let us understand what music is.

A Short Brief on Music:

It is said that even stone-age people made music by imitating the naturally occurring sounds & rhythms. The word music originated from the Greek word “mousike” meaning the art of the muses in Ancient Greece which included the goddess music, art, dance & poetry.

Music is creating organized sound by using rhythm, melody, or harmony. Banging a pot or a pan makes noise but if banged in a rhythmic way it becomes simple music.

Music usually comprises of the pitch, high & low noted, tune, rhythm, dynamics of sound generated, and timbre. There is no simple way of defining music except that it is an art form of created sound played with rhythm, pitch, melody, timbre, etc.

Today people enjoy music in various ways such as listening, playing an instrument or singing, or even composing. But above all, we like music because it makes us feel good & euphoric.

Have you ever thought about certain songs that keep on repeating in your mind over time affecting you deeply? Scientists say that listening to music releases dopamine in the brain, a chemical or a feel-good neurotransmitter that helps in motivating a person.

Does Enjoyable Music Change Our Mood?

The general feeling is that we like music as it makes us feel good. But how does it make us feel good? The answer to this question was provided by 2 neuroscientists Anne Blood & Robert Zatorre doing research at McGill University in Montreal, in 2001. They used magnetic resonance imaging to study & understand the effects while listening to pleasurable music. They found that music turned on the limbic & paralimbic areas of the brain, attached to exciting reward responses of the brain, similar to those experienced while having good food, addictive drugs, or sex. The rewarded response is triggered by the surge of the neurotransmitter or the feel-good chemical dopamine in the brain.

Music is the Drug:

However, It is quite difficult to understand the reason for the rewarded dopamine rush with music, unlike food & sex. Food & sex contributes to our survival & hence the dopamine rush is justified but not music as it’s just a sequence of sounds with no survival value. No one knows the reason.

Anyway, research has given many clues in detecting the reasons why music gives rise to intense emotions. Scientists believe that the dopamine rush when listening to music is quite similar to the feeling of satisfying an unfulfilled desire. Music when played produces sonic patterns & rhythmic sounds raising our expectations of what’s coming next in the note. If proved right then it rises to the excitement, a rewarded surge of dopamine. The consistent play of expectations through-out the relay of music keeps the brain activated outpouring joy & emotions.

Why Music Makes You Happy:

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Research has found that people take to music for reasons similar to how they are drawn to gambling, food, drugs & even sex. Listening to the music of your liking makes the brain release dopamine, a chemical engaged in keeping you motivated & addicted. In music the excitement created anticipating what’s going to come next & reaching its expectations is rewarded with a dopamine surge in the brain giving amazing pleasure.

Research has found that pleasure induced through listening to music gives rise to emotional arousal & pulsates your heart & breathing rate. In some cases, the feeling of shivers or chill has been felt during a listening experience. Researchers have found that these experiences relate to blood flowing to areas in the brain connected to dopamine surge.

To understand the dopamine link researchers selected eight music lovers who brought along with them to the lab the music that gave them the excitement chill. After allowing them to listen to their favorite music for 15 minutes, they were injected with a radioactive substance that connects or relates to dopamine receptors. But many of the results were formulated with the help of a PET scanner that tried to gauge the release of dopamine connected with the receptors.

Potential Effects of Music:

People listening to music are supposed to be happier individuals as per the study conducted by the Journal of Positive Psychology in 2013. This relates to a person being more successful & happier when connected to happy & upbeat music in improving their mood & happiness.

Relationship between Music & Science:

Music & science are closely related. Both are creative & inspirational when amending a certain exercise. The infinite musical expressions ranging from sound, rhythm & tempo can be composed into a mathematical exercise of emotions. There are numerous scientific ways of defining music mathematically because they are correlated. Some researchers have even suggested that music is the father of mathematics, a theory related to creating sound. You must have the knowledge of how to break the sound into elements of rhythm, pitch & tempo while making music. The other connection between music & science comes with vibration. As per science sound is vibration while it’s the frequency of vibration that makes different sounds. The study of the sound created by such vibrations that evoke different emotions becomes music.

Music is that bridge that narrows down the gap between different cultures & languages. Science is the art of explaining and can explain music but only an intellectual connection to it emotionally can create it.

Musical Emotions & well Being:

A very important aspect of the psychology of music is to understand how it affects you emotionally. As discussed earlier, music can evoke strong emotional responses such as chills & thrills while listening to music.

Enjoyable music often leads to neurotransmitter boosting reward with the release of dopamine to change mood & in fact also helps in relieving stress. People listening to music daily in regulating their pleasure & emotions such as:

  • Enjoyment: Enjoyment while listening to music is quite similar to invoking pleasure centers of the brain felt while eating food, having sex, or drugs. It is the dopamine surge of the brain which stimulates the behavioral change in a person while listening to music.
  • Musical Expectations: Anticipating the next note or the rhythm while listening to music is often expected. The unexpected event in the music whether the anticipated note is fulfilled or not leads to enjoyment for the music lover.
  • Emotional Outcome: To be noted that the dopamine surge which happens while listening to enjoyable music is not just the reason for the exciting behavioral change. The dopamine system solely is not responsible for the behavioral change but due to its interaction with other regions of the brain in influencing the mood swing.
  • Musical Memory: Musical emotions along with memory survive longer in the brain unlike other forms of memory. Part of the reason for that is that many parts of the brain are engaged while listening to music and lesser parts for other tasks.
  • Coordinating with Music: Music often makes people coordinate with the music with bodily movements or dancing. Our body moves with the rhythm of music either fast or slow to combine fully with the music.
  • Emotional Experience: A person listening often expresses the type of music being heard by mimicking the emotion of the song such as sad or happy music.
  • Behavior: It has been found that music can influence consumer behavior.
  • Mood: Music can help you to shift from your moods. Many use music to energize shift from boredom. A distressed person could listen to music & concentrate on admiring the beauty of the music rather than dwelling on the situation.
  • Music & Time: You never realize how time has passed when you listen to enjoyable music. Pleasant music is quite relaxing to the ears & mind and regularly used in malls & supermarkets for people to stay longer & purchase more goods.
  • Sense of Identity: Music has become a strong tool for the new generation in identifying themselves. They tend to relate to the singer or the music or lyrics in the song with their identity in following their dreams.

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