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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: emotions are triggered by external stimuli. In this case its music, it does not necessarily always makes you happy. It can scare you, it can make you sad or make you happy. Various art forms like music, painting, dance etc strive to move us emotionally without the use of words.

    Do you know that we communicate primarily via non-verbal communication and hence, these art forms have the ability to generate strong emotions because they use the most effective means of communication (non-verbal).

    Hope this answers your question :)
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      Jun 24 2011: Chandramouli, thanks, that's an interesting perspective.

      I understand that non-verbal communication is very important. But most of this communication consists of "signals" with a semiotic meaning -- they "signify" something that we can recognize: when a man lifts his fist, we perceive him to be potentially aggressive, because we know from experience that men use their fists to punch.

      But music? Music is so abstract. It has no direct connection with recognizable signs. Why do we associate particular sounds with particular feelings?

      The mystery remains.

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