Humans love music. We listen to it in the car, while we are working out, or when we are in need of a mood booster. But have you ever considered why? Music is simply just a bunch of instruments playing simultaneously in the same key to the same beat, sometimes with someone saying strings of words with different pitches. Shouldn’t we find music to be annoyingly distracting? After all, what makes these pitches and instruments into something different and more meaningful than any other sounds in our lives?
Scientifically, the answer to this question can be found through a simple fMRI. According to Wilkins et al. (2014), when a person is listening to songs, especially favorite songs or genres, the neurotransmitter dopamine was released into the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is an important structure in the reward and pleasure system, thus its nickname, “the pleasure center” of the brain. This part of the brain is also impacted by dopamine during other pleasurable activities and when someone is addicted to a substance. It seems odd that something as simple as listening to a song can release dopamine to the same extent as when an addict consumes their substance, so there must be other explanations.
Another answer can be found in the evolution of humans. Humans were once hunter-gatherers and greatly relied on patterns in our environment to be able to survive. Patterns back then were things related to survival; certain sounds meaning different things, such as a growl signaling danger. Now that most humans no longer need to worry about finding patterns relating to predators or finding potential foods, the remaining pattern recognition is related to music. Our brains like patterns, and music is a pattern, with the choruses and melodies we can find throughout the song and even between genres. A study done by Salimpoor et al. (2011) suggested this pattern recognition by identifying that dopamine was released in the highest quantities when we can predict what is going to happen next in the songs, whether that be a note or chord progression. When we can’t predict notes, we get bored and don’t enjoy the music as much.
Why do different people like different music then? If this is all an evolutionary cause, then why doesn’t every person like the same beats and patterns? This can be basic in our genetics and how we were raised: the nature versus nurture argument. However in this case, it’s less of an argument and more of an agreement between these two topics. A lot of times, we like the same or similar music as our parents, potentially because the music we heard growing up has memories of innocence and being care free tied to it. We often connect songs to memories, both good and bad, because of the way our brain encodes things. The more interesting a memory, the higher likelihood we are to remember it. Therefore, if a certain day or strong emotion has a song tied to it, we are more likely to encode it.
We are all different people who like different things, but something we can all agree on is the idea that music is an enjoyable thing we are lucky to have in our lives. For me, I can use music to elicit a certain feeling, remember a person or day, or chill out and relax. Music’s many functions for me personally make me enjoy it. It’s less about the evolution or the structure of my brain, but it’s still interesting to learn about it!
Resnick, Brian. “The Scientific Mystery of Why Humans Love Music.” Vox, Vox, 4 Feb. 2016, www.vox.com/science-and-health/2016/2/4/10915492/why-do-we-like-music.
Salimpoor, V., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K. et al. Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nat Neurosci, vol. 14, 257–262, 2011.
Wilkins, R. W., et al. “Network Science and the Effects of Music Preference on Functional Brain Connectivity: From Beethoven to Eminem.” Scientific Reports, vol. 4, no. 1, 2014.