Thank you for the Music: why do we love songs?

Emily Hewat looks at how our brains respond to music

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Whether you prefer pop to classical or heavy metal to jazz, it is fair to say that most of us listen to our favourite music on a regular basis. But despite being able to belt out every Mamma Mia song whilst driving, the main reason I listen to music is not for the lyrics. I would never dream of leaving the house without my earphones and yet cannot stand poetry.

So what is it about music that makes us want to listen to it?

When we listen to music we release dopamine, a chemical messenger used by the nervous system that allows us to feel pleasure. Initially, it would be easy to assume that this is due to the lyrics we are hearing, that the words are resonating with us and making us feel certain emotions. However, there is a hypothesis that it is the rhythm that latches onto us in a method called entrainment where our heartbeats will change to match the beat of the music. The French Institute of Science’s Aucouturier suggests that we process music with the same regions of our brains that we use to process speech, which are also the regions used to convey our emotions. The tone of music or a person’s speech are understood in similar ways; high pitched tends to mean happy whilst warbled tones denote fear.

Consequently, music is already creating emotions within us in the same way speech does before lyrics are even added.

Whilst there is controversy over how our brains process music, it is certain that the reason we like music so much is because of patterns. Being able to recognise a chord progression or know what’s coming next in a piece of music is an evolution of our survival skills. Recognising sounds such as an approaching predator is an important pattern that humans used to rely on. Our love of patterns - according to a study by Zatorre for Nature Neuroscience - explains why we dislike music we are unfamiliar with, regardless of lyrics. Being unable to spot patterns and predict what will come next makes us bored. For someone like me who enjoys the predictable chord sequences of pop music, jazz is therefore difficult to find engaging.

A study by psychologist David Greenberg and the University of Cambridge researched our musical likes and dislikes further. This study divided 4,000 participants into three categories of brain types: empathisers (people who focus on thoughts and emotions), systemisers (people who focus on rules and systems) and balanced (people who focus equally on both areas). The study found that each of these brain types liked different styles of music; empathisers liked emotional low energy songs, systemisers liked more intense music such as heavy metal or classical and those with balanced brain types have a broad range of preferences.

While this shows that we may not have a choice in which music we prefer, once we have chosen a genre, it is psychologically ingrained in us. Listening to our favourite music evokes memories and changes the connectivity between the auditory regions of the brain and hippocampus, thus allowing us to attach emotions to music.

Perhaps though, the most important factor for why we enjoy music is the circumstances to which we listen to it. Psychology Today suggests that we listen to music to improve our performances, such as combating boredom whilst studying or for motivation to work out. Music is also used to stimulate intellectual curiosity and manipulate our emotions, such as listening to upbeat songs to improve our mood.

Ultimately, we love music because it has the same ability to evoke emotion or create memories as a conversation does and yet it can also become something familiar that we take refuge in.

While our music tastes may differ, it is clear that music is almost a necessity to our way of life.

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