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Laurens Rademakers


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Why does music "touch" us emotionally? It doesn't make sense.

This is a profound mystery which I cannot begin to ponder. Perhaps you can help?

Think of it: technically speaking, music is just a collection of sounds interspersed by silence.

But every human being knows of pieces of music that really "touch" him or her emotionally. These emotions can be very strong, and transport you to another "place".

How is it possible that a mere collection of sounds gets associated in our brain with memories, experiences, emotions, stories, images, feelings...? Why can we even cry when hearing a particular piece of music or even a fleeting, short succession of a few notes?

It's totally bizarre. I don't understand. It makes no sense, as far as I can see.

Sense? No, because:

-(Apparently) there's no "utilitarian"/"economic" value to music.
-(Apparently) there's no biological/evolutionary advantage -- we are hunters and gatherers, with some brutally uttered noises we should get by well while hunting mammoths and elephants.
-There seems to be no real social value either (as some music can be too private, and a singular fragment may touch a single person at a strictly single, private moment)
-Maybe there's a neurological advantage (releasing energy in excessively charged neurons, or something to that extent...)

In any case: how can we ever explain the fact that music "touches" us and generates "feelings" that can touch our entire body and make us shiver?


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  • Jun 24 2011: Music has rythm, many of the components of our biological body also do, like the cells that govern the rate of our heartbeat. So there may be some kind of harmony going on here.

    These biological rythms inside us helps us notice patterns in the world around us, I would say music is a massive collection of patterns that stand out to us from the rest of the sounds we hear. As to feelings being triggered by music, I can only say that some people are more sensitive to certain types of information than others.

    - Ding
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      Jun 24 2011: Siuling, interesting insight. But rythm can only be part of the answer.

      The melodic aspect of music cannot be explained. Why does a minor scale make most of us sad, whereas the major scale makes us happy? Tonality (apart from rythm) can provoke deep emotions. Why?
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        Jun 25 2011: Here again, I'd say consider the tones used in communicating with infants. Lullabies are a good example. Most, worldwide since dawn of civilization use major scale.

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