Why does music make us feel certain emotions?

5 November 2019, 16:55

By Rosie Pentreath

Whether it makes us feel wonderful, wistful, sorrowful or downright soppy, music undoubtedly makes us *feel*. But why do sound waves hitting our ears transfer into real emotions, felt at the very core of our beings? A new study attempts to provide an answer…

A new study by the University of Southern California (USC) has attempted to answer one of our favourite questions: why does music make us feel the way it does?

From feeling invincibly cheerful in the company of Copland’s ‘Hoe Down’, to allowing sorrow to sweep over us during ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Handel’s Rinaldo, music can tap into our most primitive emotions – even when it’s not immediately obvious why.

Indeed – why do the soundwaves reaching our ears transfer into physical reactions (think quickened heart rates and dampening eyelids)?

Read more: If this music gives you goosebumps, you might have a special brain >

Before we get started trying to figure this out, though, listen to the above performance of Bach’s ‘Chaconne’ – a piece with one of the most emotionally wrought openings there is – and concentrate on what it makes you feel. Does your heart quicken a little? Can you feel your skin tingle with goosebumps as your ears are hit by those beautiful but angsty chords?

Why is this happening?

Why does music make us feel certain things?
Why does music make us feel certain things? Picture: Getty

Why does music make us feel certain things?

The facilitator for these physical reactions occurring while music wreaks emotional havoc on us, is the area of the brain called Heschl’s gyrus (in the temporal lobe, for those familiar with mapping out their noggin) which – as scientists put it – “lights up like a Christmas tree” when we listen to music.

The new USC study, which makes use of artificial intelligence, wanted to delve deeper into exactly what makes the gyrus “light up”.

It focused on three aspects of the music listening experience: neural (how our brains respond), physiological (how our bodies respond), and emotional (whether we report to feel happy or sad during listening), and focused on 74 musical variables, including rhythm, timbre and volume.

It found that things like changing dynamics, changing rhythms and changing timbre were picked up on most by the Heschl’s gyrus area of the brain – so it’s really all about contrast.

Contrasts in pulse and strength of beats, especially, were found to work on the brain.

“Taking a holistic view of music perception, using all different kinds of musical predictors, gives us an unprecedented insight into how our bodies and brains respond to music,” the leader of the study, Tim Greer, tells Neuroscience News.

“If a song is loud throughout, there’s not a lot of dynamic variability, and the experience will not be as powerful as if the composer uses a change in loudness.”

Quiz: Are you logical or emotional, based on your taste in music?

As well as dynamics and rhythm changes being picked up by the brain, according to this study, it’s the changes in textures – in orchestral music especially, we can think of the entry of new instruments – that excites the brain.

What science calls galvanic skin response – and what we call sweating – was especially found to increase with new instruments coming in and crescendos.

Back in 2017, the team from the same institution found that certain people might be more inclined to feel goosebumps during music than other, owing – essentially – to structural differences in the brain.

Does it work for music we don’t know?

While it might seem obvious why familiar music might elicit emotion in us (excitement for music we love, lyrics we know off by heart, that we revisit for a tug at the heartstrings – all that), this study also aimed to explore reactions to previously unknown music with no lyrics.

40 volunteers were asked to listen to a series of sad or happy excerpts of music they had never heard before, while their brains were scanned using MRI.

60 others had their heart activity and skin conductance measured while they listened through headphones, and were asked to rate the intensity of emotion (happy or sad) from 1 to 10 while listening.

This all fed into AI, which helped the scientists crunch the numbers and understand more about why music makes us feel the way it does, by tying the three aspects (neural, physiological and emotional, see above) together.

Using AI in this way has enabled scientists to reach a deeper understanding of what music does to the brain, the physical reactions this elicits, and what people identify to be their related emotional responses to these feelings.

“From a therapy perspective, music is a really good tool to induce emotion and engage a better mood,” one of the researchers, Assal Habibi, tells Neuroscience News.

“Using this research, we can design musical stimuli for therapy in depression and other mood disorders. It also helps us understand how emotions are processed in the brain.”

Click here to read the full study.