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The Neuro-Chemistry of Music

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I read the article posted by Michael Chanan earlier (How Music Changes our Brains) and was suddenly compelled to look into this. I’ve been a musician, of sorts, for some years and have always been curious as to why music affects people the way it does. I’m also partial to the odd read of a science magazine or two and so, I immediately turn to neurochemistry, not that I can say I’m an expert. I’ve been perusing ScienceDaily and TedTalks for some ideas (links at the bottom).

There are several angles that can be taken to try and explain why people enjoy music and certain other sounds. The first and most obvious approach is the psychological A lot of music can and does derive its emotional impact from cultural associations. For example: bluegrass is, for many, easy to associate with a simplistic or rustic lifestyle because of the culture it evolved in. By the same token, classical music can be easily associated with wealth because it has often been played in large concert halls with expensive looking orchestras. This approach is flimsy at best however. While there is truth in it, it is very subject to opinion. Looking at music from the angle of association can work but I feel we need to look at it from an evolutionary perspective.

Over millennia human beings have learned to associate the frequencies and volumes of various sounds with certain things. Some of these associations are fairly obvious, for example: loud = big = possible predator = scary = run, and so a loud noise and cause a release of cortisol in the brain in case you need to run. Or fight. In a roundabout way this may explain some people’s enjoyment of loud music. When listening to a song you like and allowing yourself to be immersed in it, you quickly start to experience the music as part of you rather than separate. This could be because when you know a song well, the brain can synchronise with the patterns the music follows. This sense of oneness may, flip a loud noise from representing the danger of a more powerful animal to representing one’s own power and therefore security. On the other hand it would seem to me that most people can be put off by loud music they haven’t heard before, although there are probably other reasons for this.

Other examples of this evolutionary association would be in the sound of higher frequency. The frequency of most babies’ voices will cause many people to feel nurturing and caring. The reasons this would evolve are obvious but on a side note, this shows an example of how different animals affect each other. Cats have, since their (rather voluntary) domestication, gained the ability to mew in this same frequency to get the same caring response. The fact that we can displace these associations onto other things shows how a musical sound could evoke a certain emotion. Much higher pitches, at least when their in a major key, will sound innocent, carefree and overall light, possibly due to the connection to babies and children. Of course then the question arises: Why does a major key sound happy and a minor sad? I’m going to write a second blog for that because this is a big subject.

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