“Without music, life would be a mistake” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Imagine it’s a Saturday night and you’re at a music festival. Pick any act you like; Beck can be settling down into an instrumental interlude, gently plucking away at his guitar strings, or Muse can be rising into a breath-taking solo.
It doesn’t matter who you are or what you like, you’re all feeling the same thing: that chill; that flush of euphoria that climbs up your spine and makes you hot in the face. In fact, you don’t even need to be at a music festival. You can be sitting in your armchair listening to anything from Mozart to Metallica and you can get the same effect. But what causes our brain to respond differently depending on what we are listening to? And how can a sequence of just 12 different notes have such a profound biological effect on us?
Unsurprisingly, the answer is somewhat related to the levels of dopamine that are secreted during these periods. To a degree, music has the same effect on our cerebellum as any other stimulus that our body recognises as being ‘nice’. But, music is a bit more complicated; music has the ability to evoke a lot of emotions and has led to many contrasting theories.
Firstly, the strongest neurological response is measured in response to music that you know already. It’s that feeling of familiarity as the song rises into the key change or begins to meander into a solo that you know note-by-note. It is the structure of the piece that is key and not what is playing: the greater the build-up; the greater the chills.
But what if you don’t know the song as well? Can you still have the same biological response?
Of course you can, the element of surprise is still crucial in determining your body’s dopamine levels. This is often why music often has so much more of a powerful effect when you hear it live. The feeling of familiarity is still there, but your body is sensing something new, pumping our adrenaline and dopamine at an incredible rate.
Interestingly, the mathematics of pitch plays an exciting role in brain activity. The most pleasurable intervals in a scale are the ones that can be broken up into regular fractions. Have a look at this keyboard here:
The interval between a C and an F is 6 notes out of 12. 6/12 = 1/2. Similarly, the interval between a C and G is 8 notes out of 12. 8/12 = 2/3. Nice easy fractions to deal with, right? Now let’s take an F#. The interval between a C and an F# is 7 notes out of 12. 7/12 is not a simple fraction to process and the brain perceives it as unpleasant. When a melody sounds unpleasant, the posterior cingulate cortex activates and instigates a sense of emotional pain. Anyone that’s had to listen to Yoko Ono will understand this feeling of quasi-physical pain.
It doesn’t all adhere to the laws of mathematics however, there are constantly amazing discoveries being made in the field of musical neuroscience. For example, quite often, traditionally negative stimuli have the ability to evoke a positive biological response. Japanese researcher Ai Kawakami explains that this is because sad music evokes romantic responses as well as sad ones. Remarkably, your ear doesn’t have to be musically trained in order to feel this response – it is a purely neurological phenomenon seemingly unrelated to intricacies of the music itself.
Furthermore, the brain realises that the emotions instigated by sad music are false and that the sad emotions do not actually pose any real threat to yourself. The study concluded with the idea that listening to sad music may actually help the brain to cope with negative stimuli that actually pose a genuine threat. Not only that, the positive response you get from listening to sad music can alleviate unpleasant emotions. So, how long do I have to wait until the doctors are prescribing me a dose of Debussy?
Lewis Norman, Science & Tech Editor