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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: A splendid mystery which may never be fully understood for all technical analysis we do.

    For example, major scales in general are 'lively" or "happy" compared with "morose" and "melancholic" minor scales. But why?

    The structure. The symmetry. The coherence. The complexity. The depth. The rhythm. The pitches. The dynamics. The skill. The content. The generation. The environment.

    For all the possible set of answers, someone will still ask: "But why?"

    It would be safe to say that music in general can be appreciated or not or both.

    I remember reading somewhere ( I think it was about Feynman ) a man asking his friend the question of why long ago -- and even now -- people tried to understand what a rainbow is and how it is formed. In summary, the person mentioned virtues like curiosity and physical/mathematical mysteries inspiring people to study it. In reply, the guy ( assuming Feynman was who I remember it was ) retorted with the idea that couldn't people simply try to understand the rainbow because it is beautiful.

    I guess understanding why music touches us is intimately tied to why beauty touches us. Then people will ask, "What then is beauty?;" as to the beholder most will answer.

    Music is a legacy. Music touches our hearts since we can touch back. As much as we find ourselves so insignificant and so small in the grand scheme of things, as the universe and the stars shine down on us, we can look up and shine back.
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      Jul 12 2011: Yes, that was Feynman. This anecdote inspired the title of a book: "Feynman's Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life" by Leonard Mlodinow, who wrote it as the story of his friendship with Feynman: http://www.amazon.com/Feynmans-Rainbow-Search-Beauty-Physics/dp/044653045X

      I would argue that perception of beauty IS due to an intuition for mathematical relationships, including (in the case of music) periodicity (rhythm), multiplicity (relationships between tonal frequencies and harmonies), and rate of change ("shape" of the sound). The subjective aspect of beauty has to do with which properties we prefer to notice most, but the properties themselves still have roots in mathematics.

      I suspect that the reason for the enjoyment of whichever musical properties we prefer may be due to our innate ability to seek and analyze patterns. The mind delights in finding patterns, which is likely due to an evolved reward system (e.g. dopamine) that encourages greater understanding of things, which definitely can be linked to survival instincts: patterns in weather, migration, hunting and gathering, even social interactions and interspecies behavioural analysis, all are worth understanding better from a survival point of view. Music listening and learning can enhance pattern recognition, and the mind surely must enjoy finding easy ways to practice this skill, such as when the tones are soothing and harmonious rather than jarring and chaotic, or if the rhythm is fun and interesting. Creating music, then, is a way to share a pattern that the mind has developed as a way to practice describing patterns.

      The emotional aspect associated with music may be due to correlation, not causation. What I mean is, the mind's pattern-matching skill is tying music together with emotions as a way to understand it, or to catalogue the similarities between music and emotion. So music itself may not cause emotion, though in reminding us of emotions, we may find ourselves feeling them.
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        Jul 14 2011: But why? =)
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          Jul 14 2011: Good question. :)

          It's a feedback loop: positive feedback (i.e. the enjoyment), encourages the loop to continue, and thus the benefits can continue building on themselves.

          So our innately analytical minds enjoy music, because music is beneficial in how it expands our mental capabilities.
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      Jul 13 2011: I guess music is touching us, in time of listening to newer pieces or ideas only
      otherwise, why would it touch me?
      it's an experience

      even for pieces that touch us, the more we listen to the piece .... the less touching it gets
      this means there is nothing as touching, it's a new experience, I think
      and all what it needs is to listen to the piece for sometime to become standard for us
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        Jul 14 2011: I know a lot who would say otherwise though.

        There are music (with lyrics or purely instrumental) I and a lot others I know who just cannot get enough of one item or sort of music.

        On the other hand, there are some which does not appeal as immediate as others but you get to listen to it more, you get to understand it more, you get to assimilate it more, and you get to appreciate them.

        But the new experience is indeed an aspect which is true in a lot of cases.

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