Why music?

by lizabernstein

As I began reviewing for the midterm, I couldn’t help but return back to our initial question: why do we listen to music?

Music is everywhere.  And it isn’t a new phenomenon.  Music seems to be the most ancient of human activities with rituals from thousands of years ago containing musical components.  It makes us happy; it makes us depressed; it makes us laugh.  It makes us remember our wedding; it makes us remember a friend; it makes us remember our first kiss.  But why?  Evolutionarily, it makes no sense.  Cravings of sex and food are vital to our survival; thus, their survival over the years makes sense to us.  Their occurrence is intuitive.  So why has music survived?  Science may have an answer for us.

It turns out that music may be triggering two different parts of our brain: the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala.  The first is the same part of the brain that releases dopamine, while the second is the part of our brain commonly associated with processing emotion.  Thus, it seems there may be a scientific reason for our overwhelming intrigue for music.  An experiment was recently performed in order to determine how much a subject would pay for a song and if this number was dependent on how much activation occurred within their amygdala.  The subjects were put in an MRI scanner in order to measure the amount of activation that occurred within their amygdala when a song was played.  They were played songs they had never heard before but that they would presumably like based off of a Pandora-like algorithm.  The reason for the songs being previously unknown to the subjects was to avoid them having automatic emotional responses that had been previously created to songs they already knew.  The subjects were then asked how much they would pay for the song on a scale of 0-2 dollars.  The data showed that the subjects whose amygdala was more active for a certain song were willing to pay more for that song.  Thus, the scientists determined that we receive an intellectual reward while listening to music that stimulates our amygdala.

The scientific effects of music have always interested me.  In our culture, music is everywhere.  It is the way we express our emotions, the way we feel our emotions, the way we are.  And it seems to have always been this way.  Maybe eventually we will understand what it is that is so compelling about music.  But for now, all we can do is enjoy.

If you’re interested in learning more about the experiment, I read about it in this article: http://science.time.com/2013/04/15/music/