Leo Tolstoy, a prolific Russian writer often considered to be one of the greatest authors of all time, once said that “Music is the shorthand of emotion.” People have many different reactions to music. It can evoke sorrow, nostalgia, happiness, or, in some cases, nothing at all.
Music connects people. Relating to a song written by somebody else can help a listener realize that she isn’t alone in whatever she is feeling. It helps people organize, understand, and even define their emotions. Often, one can recall his most powerful memories, from crushing heartbreak to childhood bliss, all with the help of music.
But how does music cause us to emote?
When we delve deeper and look at the psychological and neurological responses to music, we find that music causes the brain to release dopamine (a neurotransmitter associated with humans’ feelings of pleasure), which is somewhat surprising when you think about it in its most literal sense.
Music itself isn’t much, just a collage of pitches and tones that either end up fitting together or creating dissonance. Lexico, a collaboration between dictionary.com and Oxford University Press, defines music as “vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.”
When we listen to music, our brains make connections, either with lyrics or a melody, inducing memories and emotions that overcome us. A UCLA study performed by neurologists Istvan Molnar-Szakacs PhD and Katie Overy PhD found that when watching individuals experience emotions, subjects’ brains reacted in the same way as the people they were watching’. Music essentially causes the same sympathy in listeners. This is the reason why we smile at some love songs and why our hearts ache during others. We anthropomorphize melodies, interpreting them as happy or sad, and we relate to the lyrics, strengthening our emotional responses. This combination of lyrics and melody create sympathetic reactions in us, which can at times feel just as powerful as if we are going through a break up or falling in love ourselves.
The nostalgia borne of our own memories is another big part of why certain songs evoke particular emotions. After a breakup, remembering a song you associated with a relationship can really hurt, and at the other end, listening to a song you spent a bright summer day dancing to can evoke happiness.
For those of us who love music, when this collage of sound is processed by the brain, it, like most other things in life that create enjoyment, releases dopamine in the brain. Besides inducing pleasure, dopamine is a chemical that provides the same feeling of euphoria that results from seeing someone you love or eating a delicious food.
However, some people who have completely normal dopamine responses to other stimuli, like their favorite food or the person they love, have none in response to music. The common belief that everyone loves some type of music is false, though musical anhedonia, the condition in which music does not resonate with individuals, is rare.
That said, the majority of the population listens to music because of the chemical and emotional reactions of our brains, and though we all have different responses to it, we still love and enjoy music.