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Is music what makes us human?

by Jeremy Deaton

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In many ways, we are little different from animals. We eat, we sleep, we fart. Like the more clever mammals, we use tools and work in groups. There are only a few qualities that set us apart from our nearest relatives. Perhaps the most unusual is our love of music.

Unlike other creatures, we like to dance and clap and sing along to the radio. Why? The answer has something to do with our unique capacity for language and our enduring appetite for a great story.

The human ear is exquisitely sensitive, but not like a dog’s or a cat’s. We’re not able to hear particularly distant sounds or tones that are especially high-pitched. But, we are highly attuned to changes in pitch and the repetition of sounds, particularly those that fall within the range of the human voice.

Our talent for finding patterns in sound enables us to identify words. Think of “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix. The chorus is notoriously difficult to make out. Many people hear the actual lyric, “Excuse me while I kiss the sky,” as “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.” Still, some can tell the difference.

That we can understand Hendrix’s words is also why we can discern the shape of his iconic guitar line. Language and music are inextricably linked. Each is a way of organizing sound. A 2014 study of jazz musicians showed that having a conversation and playing an instrument lit up the same parts of the brain.

How does music give us pleasure? As we listen to music, we create expectations about what we hear. We expect a melody to stay within the key and on the beat. We expect a consistent tempo. Robert Zatorre, a neuroscientist who studies music, says that we make predictions based on music we have heard before.

Our brains “accumulate musical information over our lifetime, creating templates of the statistical regularities that are present in the music of our culture … When we listen to music, these brain networks actively create expectations based on our stored knowledge,” according to Zatorre.

Our ears perk up as music challenges and satisfies our expectations. As Robert Jourdain wrote in “Music, The Brain, And Ecstasy”, “the deepest pleasure in music comes from deviation from the expected: dissonances, syncopations, kinks in melodic contour, sudden booms, and silences. Isn’t this contradictory? Not if the deviations serve to set up even stronger resolution.”

Through rise and fall, tension and release, music conveys emotion, and emotion activates the brain’s reward system. A 2010 study showed that intensely emotional moments trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure.

This process begins in anticipation of the emotional peak, as a wave of tension finally crests. Think of the ecstatic climax of “Liebestod” from Wagner’s opera, “Tristan and Isolde”The brain serves up a shot of dopamine just before the violins deliver the work’s long-awaited resolution.

Dopamine plays a critical role in our reward system. It can be stimulated—quite literally—by sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. A 2013 study showed that people were willing to spend more money on music that activated the release of dopamine. That release was determined by how well the music challenged and satisfied their expectations.

Think of Adele’s “Hello“. It begins slow, quiet, and plodding, building tension as it crescendos toward an emotional peak. Adele belts out the first chorus (“Hello from the other side…”), delivering a dose of dopamine. She pulls her voice back during the second verse, but the song continues to build. Adele arrives at the final chorus accompanied by backup vocals and a driving drum beat. She belts her way to the final payoff.

The song—with its peaks and valleys, rising tension, and euphoric release—follows the contours of a great story. Musicians believe songwriting to be a lot like storytelling. There are characters, conflict, reversals, and resolution. A skilled songwriter can play with our expectations, arouse powerful emotions, and deliver a jolt of pleasure.

“In order for me to feel confident with one of my songs, it has to really move me,” Adele told the New York Times. “That’s how I know that I’ve written a good song for myself.”


Artwork by CHLOE INSALL-JONES

Jeremy Deaton

By day, Jeremy writes about climate and energy for Nexus Media. His work has appeared on Popular Science, Business Insider, ThinkProgress, and Grist. By night, he is a recovering musician, avid runner, and guacamole connoisseur. You can follow him @deaton_jeremy.

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