Here are a Few Theories
Our brains love patterns; patterns help us make sense of the world. Music is a pattern. Research has shown that when we listen to music, our brains release dopamine, making us feel happy. In one study published in Nature Neuroscience, researchers found that a release of dopamine is most potent when a piece of music reaches an emotional peak. That may explain why we like music. But it still doesn’t justify why we formed this liking in the first place. Typically, our brains release dopamine during behavior essential to survival— as an adaptation that urges us to do more of these behaviors. But music is not crucial in the same way. One possibility is that it’s a function of our love of patterns.
Likely, we developed to recognize and appreciate patterns because it’s a necessary skill for survival. Does a whoosh in the trees mean there’s danger lurking over us? Does the scent of smoke hint a fire may be coming my way and that I should run? As we listen, we’re always anticipating what harmonies, melodies, and rhythms may follow. That’s why we usually don’t like genres of music we’re not familiar with. When we’re unfamiliar with a kind of music, we don’t have a basis for predicting its patterns. When we can’t predict musical patterns, we quickly get bored. We learn from our cultures what sounds constitute music. The rest is just random noise.
Music Can Fool the Brain
These explanations may explain why we feel joy from music but still don’t reveal the whole spectrum of emotions that music can generate. When we listen to a piece of music, its rhythm latches onto us in a process called entrainment. If the music is fast-paced, our breathing and heartbeat patterns will accelerate to match the beat. Our brains may then interpret that arousal as excitement. Research has found that the more pleasant we find the music, the greater our level of entrainment.
Another theory is that music latches onto the brain regions that are adjusted to speech, conveying all of our emotions. “Our brains are especially good at sensing emotions in speech,” the French Institute of Science’s Aucouturier states. We want to understand if those around us are happy, sad, scared, or angry. Just as higher-pitched voices sound happier, so much of the information can be contained in a single tone of a person’s tone. Music may then be a version of the exaggerated speech. “As happy as I can make my voice, a piano or violin or trumpet can make it 100 times more happy in a way,” Aucouturier says because those instruments can create a much more extensive range of notes than the human voice. We tend to mirror the emotions we hear in others; if the music mimics happy speech, the listener will become happy as well.