Why we like music remains a mystery

In a comment to an earlier post Treblid linked to an interesting article in Discovery News called ‘Why Music Makes You Happy‘. The article relates a study in which the brain function of a number of people was analysed during the playing of certain loved music. This disclosed that the pleasure centres of the brain received a dopamine hit when the subjects were listening to such music.

As I said, quite interesting.

But it in no way justifies the title. This doesn’t tell us anything much about ‘Why music makes us happy’. What it does is disclose how part of the mechanism by which certain bits of music, previously known to make the listeners happy, works.

Note, I am not saying anything at all about the validity of the substantive claims of the work reported in the article. I don’t know how much dopamine is associated with the things they talk about. So I’m happy to accept it all on face value, tentatively.

But the article doesn’t have anything to say about why some kinds of music prompt this reaction in the first place. Nor why I can get that thrill from Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s ‘Karn Evil 9, Part III’, but never from anything sung by Slim Dusty.

And it certainly has nothing to say about why we like music at all. That remains one of the big unsolved mysteries of the human condition. Why should any music at all ever affect us emotionally? Does it confer some evolutionarily positive survival advantage? Or is it a side-effect of some other selected-for human attribute? Or animal one? Or is it, indeed, just a fluke?

Perhaps, if there were a god, he would have given this to us as a gift.

And, for that matter, does everyone even love (some) music anyway? Are there people in the world to whom all music seems like Slim Dusty does to me? Perhaps love of music isn’t even a defining human characteristic.

Anyway, as is too often the case, the headline of the story promises something other that what the story delivers.

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3 Responses to Why we like music remains a mystery

  1. treblid says:

    Great post, a mystery indeed and I hope it can be solved in my life time. It seems (on Wikipedia) that people are still learning what Dopamine is, so I’m guessing it’s still a long way before we know the truth.

    Instead of trying to learn all I can about the equipment, these days I’m more focused on their effects in my brain (or body).

    Music is probably more tied to culture and age? E.g. I have recently purchased 2 CDs – Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift. Some people seem to like them (won awards and such), but personally I don’t. I’ve heard the song Poker Face on Glee (TV Series) before and quite like the song, but somehow don’t like original version. Some people OTOH prefer the original version.

    And I distinctly remembered never liking Ray Charles before, or willie nelson for that matter. But I’m a fan now. What has changed? :/

  2. James gifford says:

    Not exactly related but I found this TED talk very interesting. It is a quick talk about how sound effects us. Being in the soundproofing trade it may be more interesting to me. If you have a spare few minutes, have a look.


  3. Mark says:

    Maybe Adrian C. North and David J. Hargreaves have the answer? http://www.le.ac.uk/psychology/acn5/acn.html (see the publications list)

    I particularly like this study they carried out:

    Adrian C. North and David J. Hargreaves (2005). Labelling effects on the perceived deleterious consequences of pop music listening. Journal of Adolescence, 28, 433-440.

    Several correlational studies have supported the claim of conservative protestors that there exists a positive relationship between listening to pop music and adolescent problem behaviours. However, research on so-called ‘prestige effects’ has shown that experimental participants’ responses to music can be mediated by manipulations of prior information concerning that music. This study investigated whether perceptions of deleterious effects of pop songs on listeners may be attributable to prior labelling of those stimuli as ‘problem music’. 80 undergraduates were played songs that they were told were either suicide-inducing or life-affirming. Subsequent ratings of the songs indicated that those presented as ‘suicide-inducing’ were perceived as such, whereas presentation of the same songs in a ‘life-affirming’ frame led to the perception of them as such. These findings indicate that censorship and the subsequent labelling of certain songs as ‘problematic’ might itself cause these songs to have deleterious effects on listeners.

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