Why music never fails to grab our emotions

Latest Posts  •  May 8, 2017

Have you ever listened to a song that immediately sent shivers and chills down your spine?

If so, you can thank the feel-good hormone dopamine for that moments of delight. A research study by Valorie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist at McGill University, Montreal, reveals that the chills we get when we listen to our favorite music are caused by the same brain chemistry responsible for the joys of food, being in love and even addictive drugs.

Her research tells us we like music because it makes us feel good.

Just like when foods reward your brain with a dopamine rush, and make you want more – so does music. In fact, just the thought of listening to music that has had the “chill effect” on us in the past is enough to produce these effects (give it a try, if you don’t believe us!). David Huron, a music cognition researcher at Ohio State University points out that like drugs, music may even be mildly addictive.

This explains – on a biological level – why music has played such a major role in bringing people together and touching them emotionally since the dawn of human history. As Daniel Levitin, cognitive psychologist and author of This is Your Brain on Music, writes, “… Whenever humans come together for any reason, music is there.” Throughout the world, music is and always has been integral to cultural events and everyday life, though no one could really explain why.

In his book, Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks, a neurologist at NYU, notes that even “Darwin himself was evidently puzzled [about the origin of music in culture], writing in The Descent of Man: ‘…as neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least use to man… they must be ranked among the most mysterious with which he is endowed…’.”

Although we may not yet be able to explain the role of music in human culture, we now have many clues to why humans have “often intense and profound emotional reaction to music” as Sacks puts it. Understanding why we fundamentally like music and what draws us to it can greatly influence the way we teach music to our students.

Just like listening to music sends shivers and chills down our spine, playing music can do the same.

There’s just one thing to keep in mind – and here’s the catch: Salimpoor’s findings clearly show that the rush of dopamine is released only when we listen to music that we find especially moving. Now let’s say we force our students to exclusively play classical music when they have no affinity for classical music. Their reward system might shut down and leave them with an unpleasant feeling, whereas pop music could provide the “chill effect” and put them in a blissful state.

So we need to start thinking about different music, for different purposes and different people. As teachers, it’s our responsibility to find out what kind of music our students like, and to allow them to play the music of their choice. By doing so, we make playing music fun and desirable in the long term. After all, wouldn’t you keep reaching for your instrument if it came with the sweet side effect of happiness?

When was the last time you experienced the “chill effect” playing your instrument? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

2020-04-24T12:24:53+00:00May 8th, 2017|

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