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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 26 2011: Dear Laurens

    As a music educator I think about this question quite a bit. I learned in 10th grade that I prefer teaching music over performing. I have found I tend to have more of an emotional response when I have taught a child rather than perform myself. I will do my best to explain why.

    Music and language share many elements that are vital for sharing, expressing, and understanding emotions. One example is timbre. We find our mother's voice naturally soothing as a baby, especially when she speaks in a higher tone. Likewise a harsh or yelling tone of voice will scare babies or dogs away who naturally know to become frightened by these sounds/tones. The timbrel element of music works similarly--certain instruments sound pleasing to us: cello, piano, breathy saxophone, etc.

    Music takes it to the next level by adding several other elements, one of which is contour. The shape of a phrase in spoken languages vary depending on where you are in the world. In English, our sentences and phrases give us so many clues as to how others are supposed to feel when they hear us. Getting higher and higher in pitch tells the listener to keep being interested as there is a kicker coming soon! When that kicker of the sentence comes, there is a peek in the tone of a persons voice, or a quick drop, a change basically that informs us that something important was just said. Musical phrases and contour works the exact same way, especially in expressive music such as the romantic period.

    Other musical characteristics are the same, volume (dynamics), harmony, (dissonant or consonant?), unpleasant/exaggerated timbres (distorted guitar), speed or tempo (think of someone speaking very quickly vs slowly). The examples go on and on between communicational and musical expression. When I teach a child music, I realize that they now have a great tool for expressing themselves. And since human expression is a ubiquitous commodity, seeing my students fall in love with expression, is my drug.

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