Music On The Brain


Music is a huge part of our lives. Emmet Feerick explores how it affects us.

WE as a species have been making and listening to music since prehistoric times. Indeed, the oldest wooden instruments ever discovered were found in Greystones back in 2004, and were dated as being over 4,000 years old. Simple flutes and whistles made of bone have even been found dating back over 100,000 years. Like language, music is found in all cultures, and has existed throughout modern human history. Its ubiquity suggests a deep embedding within our psyche. So, it seems natural to ask what music does to us as individuals: what are the psychological effects of music?

Research over the last few decades has shown that beyond merely providing enjoyment, music has some unusual and subtle effects on our psyche. That chill-up-the-spine feeling known as frisson is felt by about two thirds of people, and is more commonly triggered by music than other art forms. In particular, it is triggered when musical passages include unexpected harmonies or sudden changes in volume, as they violate listeners’ expectations in a positive way.

Neurological links have been proposed between these unexpected musical changes, and the unexpected appearance of predators in the environment, as being the source of the goose bumps that go with frisson. Our ancestors had more body hair than we do, so goose bumps had the effect of increasing their apparent size to predators, making them less inviting of conflict. It is thought that a musical frisson may simply be a holdover from the days of our ancestors.

There is a particular type of person who is especially prone to experiencing this phenomenon too. Numerous studies have shown that those who score highly on personality tests for the trait “openness to experience” reported a greater number of frisson moments than those who scored lower for this trait. Openness to experience has an emotional component (love of variety, appreciation of beauty) and a cognitive component (imagination, and intellectual curiosity). Reddit even has a section dedicated to this feeling, with various recommendations for songs which are particularly frisson-inducing.

“That chill-up-the-spine feeling known as frisson is felt by about two thirds of people, and is more commonly triggered by music than other art forms.”

The euphoria that music can cause has been studied by neuroscientists, who found that the brain’s reward system responds to it in a similar way to which it responds to drugs and exercise. Two areas of the brain have been found to be separately involved in the pleasure we gain from music – one in the anticipation of the abstract reward that music brings, and the other in the direct reward of the music itself. If you are familiar with the neurotransmitter dopamine and its role in addiction, you will see a parallel here.

Dopamine can be characterised as the pleasure neurotransmitter, and it is released even in the absence of the reward itself. This is why gamblers continue to gamble even when they don’t win, and why there is fun in “the chase”. Yes, we enjoy winning games, but we enjoy playing them too. Music gives us both the chase and the reward.

On the less extreme end, there is much to be said for the power of music in its ability to evoke some of the more mundane emotions, as well. Much evidence now suggests that music has the ability to transfer emotion across the senses (a process known as Crossmodal Transfer). Researchers have found that listening to happy music enhanced the perceived happiness of a face irrespective of facial emotion, and conversely for sad music.

Another study has shown that olfactory stimuli (such as the smell of coffee) were rated as more pleasant when paired with congruent sounds (like when listening to the sound of drinking coffee). So, it seems that these effects of music have their basis in some of the brains more fundamental workings which deal with congruence and unity.

The unifying, and yes, harmonising nature of music, is something we see at both the individual and societal level. It has a wide range of powerful effects on our psyche. Perhaps this goes towards explaining its staying power across cultures and over the millennia.