How/why music causes emotion?

  1. Why music causes emotions in our mind? They are just sound waves interpreted by our brain? But what causes it to trigger emotions? Do scientists have an answer for this yet?
  2. jcsd
  3. Evo

    Staff: Mentor

    The words can be sad and/or evoke unhappy memories or thoughts.
  4. It has to be much deeper than that. Most of the music I listen to doesn't have words or even a vocalist, and it affects me deeply. I don't think much when I listen, my mind goes blank, I just soak up the sounds, it's a visceral experience. Music is a wonderful thing, I would love to know more about why humans love it so much, but at the same time, I kind of enjoy the mystery!
  5. I too mostly listen to songs with no words. I was curious to know why it affects me deeply. I googled a bit but found nothing informative.
    I suppose its still a mystery
  6. A mystery.
  7. I was pretty optimistic to find the answer here on PF
  8. Evo

    Staff: Mentor

  9. Pythagorean

    Pythagorean 4,483
    Gold Member

    I saw a presentation by a neuroscience professor who studies the neuroscience of music (don't remember the name or the venue now) and his (speculative) suggestion was that music was about expectation. Often, when our expectations are met in a timely manner, we are satisfied. A musical rhythm gives you an opportunity at every measure to have your expectations met in the short term.

    An anecdote: my 18-month-old can't help but dance every time music comes on. She can happily step back and forth to the beat, knowing it will come every time. If the beat suddenly doesn't come... she will sometimes throw a fit.

    But it becomes more complicated when considering lyrics, and sounds typical in your culture. An older blues musicians once told me there's only two beats in blues: the horse-gallop and the train-chug: two rhythmic sounds that were typical in early America (where blues was born). I notice that Celtic music has the constant thump thump thump, like an armorer hammering an anvil.

    Of course, this is all speculative, and while I think the neuroscience is interesting, I think it has a lot more to do with psychology and sociology than neuroscience since it's such an emergent phenomena.
  10. Does the expectation factor explain why certain piece of music has a tendency to 'grow' on one ?

    Often one hears a piece of music and it doesn't quite impress one. But on repeated hearings one tends to enjoy it.
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2013
  11. I like the expectation argument. However, some music doesn't adhere to popular song structure, and deliberately works against the listener's expectations. The freer forms of jazz, for example, or ambient music without any rhythmic frame of reference. I enjoy stretching my ears a bit and I listen to some fairly off the wall sounding stuff but I definitely consider it to be music and the enjoyment comes from allowing whatever happens to happen. You might find yourself listening to something very pleasing, and you roll with it and your ears are delighted and then it all turns to cavernous darkness, a clanging cacophony, jarring and unpredictable sounds, and these eventually move into another more pleasing arrangement. You can't have any expectations, you just have to see where it goes. Perhaps after repeated listens you begin to appreciate a grander structure, but that first experience is not always unpleasant, on the contrary - it can be the best thing you hear that week!

    I find this similar to why I think the happy people I know, are happy. They just live in the moment. Nice things happen. They enjoy them. Unexpected frustrations dash their plans. No matter, just sort things out, frustrations pass. Moments of sadness and despair. Use them to highlight past happiness, or forge new dreams. Everything is transient, so don't set your plans in stone and then be upset when things change.

    Perhaps this is why I find a lot of entertainment to be intellectually patronising. I like to be involved in what I listen to, watch, and read. I like books by authors like Hemingway, where the prose is a little sparse, where I'm allowed to feel emotions by implication and not have them handed to me, where I'm given the freedom to draw the pictures in my mind, in my own way. I like music that isn't ridiculously bombastic, with lyrics that aren't pseudo-emotional. I can't abide bands like U2 because their songs have no depth and yet they sing them so earnestly. It's just sunglasses music made to sell video clips. I'd rather listen to the blues sung by an incomprehensibly sad man, fumbling on the fretboard. I can feel that.


    I'm not very good at articulating my thoughts ...
  12. Drakkith

    Staff: Mentor

    Seems kind of like those tastes that you don't like at first, but grow on you in the long run until you "love" them.
  13. Drakkith

    Staff: Mentor

    I on the other hand cannot. I am VERY choosy on what music I listen to by myself, for myself. I can listen to almost anything if I'm in the car with someone else, or out working with people, but when I'm by myself I pretty much can't even listen to the radio at all because I don't like any of it. Almost like I have a "public" taste and a "private" one.

    Perhaps the blues sung like that just doesn't do anything for me because I don't WANT to feel that way?

    Join the club! :wink:
  14. Yep that's fair enough. I should say that I also like joyous music for the same reason, but only if I feel that the joy is genuine. I think that's the key for me, I like to feel a real emotional connection to the music, and not some contrived travesty. I don't much mind what the emotion is. This may stem from having battled with depression for a long time. Depression makes you numb. It's hard to feel happy, but (interestingly) it's also hard to feel sad. It's hard to feel anything, you turn into this apathetic shadow of a person. Music sets me free!
  15. Drakkith

    Staff: Mentor

    For me, whether or not I like a song can depend on the "message" of the song too. But oddly enough, sometimes not. This can happen if I really can't understand the lyrics and the sounds are just amazing to me.

    For example, I'm listening to "This is War" by 30 Seconds to Mars, and I think it's an amazing song. I feel this..."buildup" throughout the song, and it reminds me of all the things that I think are worth fighting for. Towards the end it hits its high mark and I feel like I've just won against all odds. But I'm a sucker for things like epic battles with good vs evil and things that have this message of "put yourself between danger and those you love", if you get my drift. Not sure I explained that well enough but oh well lol.
  16. It's all learned behaviour. We all did music to some extent at school and we are told that a minor chord sounds sad and major chords sound happy etc... If you travel around the world different cultures all have very different musical styles, a lot of them would not even be perceived as music per se, just random incoherent sounds to people that grew up listening to western music, and the same may be heard when these cultures hear our music. A minor chord may not sound sad to someone raised with completely different cultural understanding. I'll have a look for some examples to post if I have a bit of time free in the next couple of days but just as we do, these "unusual sounds" in other cultures are used in much the same way we use music i.e. certain differences for different occasions, like funerals for example. I'm no neurobiology but I doubt that due to a massive fundamental difference in brain chemistry. They have just learned to associate different sounds and sound combinations with different thoughts and behaviours.
  17. Drakkith

    Staff: Mentor

    I don't know, I've heard some music from other cultures before, and while it's different, I wouldn't say it's so different I can't associate with it. Plus I know I was never told that certain chords sound sad/happy. Heck, I don't even know what a minor and major chord even are.
  18. Yeah the fact you don't remember specifically being told this at school doesn't mean you didn't have a music class as a kid. I knew someone would pick at this lol. You would know a minor and major chord if you heard them sequentially (assuming you're not tone deaf), you would not necessarily say "that's minor and that's major because the former has a flattened 3rd in it..." but you would hear a sad chord and a happy chord and that is how you would describe it.

    Obviously we have all heard some form of music from other cultures that we can relate to, in some way, but that is like saying you've eaten food from other cultures, it's not exactly a definitive exploration of world cuisine is it? Most cultures use very similar rhythmical and tonal structures, most that you've heard are probably tribal and are associated with drums and dancing etc and hence have very basic rhythmical elements. I could probably play you some western music that you can't emotionally relate to that was written with a specific personal subject matter in mind.

    .... Pretty much anything by John Cage actually!

    OK not surprisingly the internet is not over run by abstract indigenous tribal music lol. I did find some less extreme examples though.

    Gamalan is generally pretty strange although is usually accompanied by some visual pupettry or something to convey meaning and emotion.

    and we've all seen this!

    OK these are bad examples of what I'm talking about because most of them are still using familiar tonal structures and patterns but its 6:30 in the morning here so I should go to sleep lol.

    Of course the discussion of music invoking emotion is also hampered by the ambiguity of what music is, any noise could technically be musical any pleasant sound can become annoying. Anyway I'll get onto my music savvy buddies and see if I can't dig up some examples of what I was actually talking about.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  19. Pythagorean

    Pythagorean 4,483
    Gold Member

    When strummed alone, the minor chord certainly sounds more morose and the major chord has more chime.

    But in the context of other chords, it can go anywhere. Add a melody over all major chords and you can make it a sad song.
  20. Oliver Sacks throws out a lot of ideas about this in his book, Musicophilia. He believes our response to music is deeply hardwired in the cerebellum. Parkinson's patients who can't take a step across the room without their muscle contractions fighting each other can suddenly start dancing when music is played. The whole book is full of incredible tales of the effects music can have on people.
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