Dr. Universe: Why do people like listening to music?

Dr. Universe: a cat in a lab coatThink of your favorite song. Maybe it brings you happiness or joy. Maybe it makes you want to start dancing. Or maybe it’s a sad, melancholy song, but you still really like it.

From the radio to concerts to our mobile devices, music is all around us. To find out exactly why people like listening to music, I talked to my friend Sophia Tegart.

Tegart is a flutist, musicologist and assistant professor in the School of Music at Washington State University. She said one of the reasons many people like listening to music is because it can affect emotions.

“Music is emotion you can hear,” she said.

Dr. Sophia Tegart

Humans have the ability experience dozens of emotions, ranging from happiness to sadness to fear. Perhaps you can think about a few of the different emotions you’ve felt while listening to music.

This idea that music can affect our emotions has been around for thousands of years, Tegart said. The ancient Greeks would even prescribe certain types of music to help improve people’s well-being or mood.

In modern times, research has shown us that the brain will release certain natural chemicals when listening to music. The body’s nervous system produces endorphins, which can help reduce pain and stress. They are also known as “feel-good” chemicals. When people feel sad, they may turn to music to help them feel better.

You know listening to music involves more than just the sounds that come into your ears. Tegart told me a bit about a percussionist named Evelyn Glennie who started to lose her sense of hearing when she was 12 years old. But that didn’t stop Glennie from becoming an accomplished musician.

“She plays barefoot and feels the vibrations of the music through her feet,” Tegart said.

Maybe you’ve also experienced music with more than just your ears. Maybe you felt the vibrations of the bass speaker or felt chills in your body. Maybe the music got your toes tapping.

Tegart said another reason people like music is it has the ability to get us moving. Whether it’s clapping our hands or dancing, music can make us want to move.

Movement can get our hearts beating and our blood flowing which is good for our health. Dancing can also help release some of those endorphins that make us feel good.

The next time you turn on the tunes, or maybe even perform a song on stage yourself, take a moment to be curious about the emotions you experience.

“Music can change style depending on what’s popular or what’s being written,” Tegart said. “But I think the common thread is that it continues to speak to us emotionally.”

If you’re up for a challenge, maybe you can even dig into the music and see if there’s something in the composer’s toolbox—a chord, a lyric, a key change—that helps make your favorite song such a good one.

Originally posted at Ask Dr. Universe