The neuroscience of music love

The oldest record of notated music, the Hurrian Hymn of Nikkal, is more than 3,000 years old. But in some ways, our relationship with music is much older than that.

As Michael Spitzer, professor of music at the University of Liverpool, told Big Think, humans have been creating and learning to recognize music since the moment our species learned to walk on two legs, creating a predictable rhythm.

Music has a profound effect on the brain. Relieves stress by lowering cortisol. It floods the brain with feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine. And it serves as a conduit through which we can process emotions that otherwise could not be described in words.

MICHAEL SPITZER: 4.4 million years ago, an australopithecine called “Ardi” stood up on his feet and walked. And since then, the rhythm of walking has sealed human music, but much more than that, pun intended, that first steps put us on the path to building connections between brain and muscle effort and sound. Hominids learned to hear footsteps as a pattern – and what patterns give you is a sense of time. You can predict what will happen next, and this willy-nilly mirrors the experience of walking across the Earth. The condition of being human – of being halfway between the birds in the sky and the whales in the ocean – we can place ourselves. The birdsong is as sharp as the bird’s movements. Just as whales have a much smoother rhythm of sailing through their own environment. Human music reflects walking and this also gives people their fascination with this metaphor that music moves. And if you think about it, music doesn’t move, but we imagine one note moving to another. And most music, whether a symphony or a song, unfolds a journey. And this journey takes us from one point to another. In our minds it is an imaginary journey, a very long, distant echo of the journey of our ancestors out of Africa.

What makes human music so distinctive is our connection between sound and movement, which is due to connections in the human brain between the motor regions controlling our movement and the regions controlling hearing and sound, the auditory cortex. As a rule of thumb, the deeper you dive into the human brain, the more universal its propensity for music and emotion becomes. If you start with the brainstem, our oldest layer, the brainstems twitch to reflexes in sound. Thus, shocks and hard impacts will trigger the brainstem reflex. The next layer up, the basal ganglia, responds to pleasure. Whether a sound is pleasant or unpleasant. The amygdala is where emotions happen: sadness, happiness, anger, fear. And the most advanced layer, the neocortex, is where you process the patterns and complexity of music.

In terms of our musical instinct, one of our abilities that is innate is what is called “auditory scene analysis” or the “cocktail party effect.” If you go to a party and are surrounded by people chattering away in different simultaneous conversations, you have the amazing ability to tune in to a particular topic. This is the same ability you have when you listen to a line in a bar fugue or a jazz standard. We can focus our listening. Birds have this, too: A baby and father emperor penguin, surrounded by 40,000 breeding pairs, can hear their voices in this incredible din. Appreciating music only as a form of relaxation or entertainment does a huge disservice to all the things music helps you do. The greatest attraction to mental health is loneliness. Music can bring people together. You don’t have to actively make music with someone else, just listening to music involves you in a social network, because every musical note is social – it’s shaped by social conventions. Music reduces stress by lowering cortisol, gives you pleasure, makes you happy by flooding the brain with neurotransmitters like dopamine. Music is an excellent way of marking memories, recalling the past – expressing your deepest emotions and your identity that cannot be captured by language because music is too precise for words. All these things improve your mental health and eventually music becomes a way of attention, of contemplation. It’s not purely relaxing because there’s too much going on while you’re listening. And the word relaxation gives a sense of passivity, while listening is a very active and creative activity.

– “And today even the youngest children learn to play an instrument.”

SPITZER: We also like to imitate rhythm and this is due to the existence of mirror neurons in our brain. When the brain sees action, you don’t have to move to experience that movement in your brain because mirror neurons respond sympathetically. We have always had an instinctive ability to imitate. We call it “mimesis.” Yawns are contagious. If I see you yawn, I yawn back. But also emotions are contagious. When I hear a sad song, my body, my mirror neurons instinctively sympathize, imitate, mirror. The sadness in the song is not only acoustic, but also encodes the behavior we associate with sadness, which is grief. Emotion is not just a feeling. Darwin was the first to notice that emotion has an adaptive role in the field: that animals and humans experience emotions in relation to goals that help them survive. So happiness is when you achieve a goal. Rage is when the target is blocked. It’s sad when you lose a loved one. Fear is the most archetypal emotion. When you are under threat, you have an instinctive response to either freeze, fight, or flee. Music is full of such responses, such as an extreme reaction to music that has been called the “chill,” or the “frisson,” or the sublime. There are moments in music that are so intense and are often triggered by breakthrough moments of power or extremity. You have the same parts of the brain that respond to that as they do to fear. That’s why chills give you goosebumps or a piloerection. The hairs on your skin literally stand on end. But you enjoy this fear.

And it’s very strange, and we have a similar experience when we go on a fairground ride or when we watch a volcanic eruption from the safety of an observation deck. As if music is violence without danger. Nobody dies in music: that’s why we think music is able to express emotion in a very intuitive way. So when you listen to music, it’s a kind of mental time travel. When you’re engrossed in work, you go back through layer after layer of your brain, almost biologically, which is why I call music a sort of umbilical cord back to Mother Nature.

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