Why You Love Music: From Mozart to Metallica-The Emotional Power of Beautiful Sounds - John Powell (2016)
Chapter 15. Why You Love Music
Music, particularly singing, is an important feature of all human societies, and we have evidence that it has been so for many thousands of years. In 2008 a team of archaeologists working in southwest Germany discovered a selection of flutes that are approximately forty thousand years old.1 These instruments were made from vulture bones with finger holes drilled in them and they had been very carefully crafted. Whoever drilled the holes had first cut fine scratches in the bone to show exactly where the holes should go. Wulf Hein, a member of the archaeological team, made a copy of one of these flutes and found that it produces a pentatonic scale, the five-note scale that has been the basis of most musical systems throughout history, including the Western major scale. Many tunes are based on the pentatonic scale, including “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which is what this amiable German researcher performs on his replica flute on YouTube (search for “the world’s oldest instrument” if you’d like to hear it for yourself).
Of course, we have no direct evidence that prehistoric humans did a lot of singing, but we can be confident that they did so from anthropological studies of modern hunter-gatherers. Sometime between 1 and 2 million years ago, humans had evolved to the point where they had much bigger brains than other primates and lived in hunter-gatherer societies. Agriculture was developed only about ten thousand years ago, which means that for more than 99 percent of human history, all humans were hunter-gatherers.2 This way of life has almost died out nowadays, but back in the latter half of the twentieth century, there were still enough hunter-gatherer tribes around in Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America to keep hordes of anthropologists in gainful employment. These academics discovered that the lifestyle of the majority of hunter-gatherers hadn’t changed for thousands of years. In general, they lived in bands of between twenty and fifty people and moved from place to place, hunting animals and gathering nuts, seeds, berries, and vegetables.
The anthropologists also found that, although the hunter-gatherer lifestyle can sometimes be hard, the working hours are surprisingly good. Studies of several of these societies have concluded that their members typically spend only twenty hours a week hunting and gathering and another ten to twenty hours preparing food and doing other types of work (making or mending tools, etc.).3 A thirty-hour working week means that they have quite a lot of free time. Anthropologist Marjorie Shostak found that the hunter-gatherers she studied spend most of their recreational time “singing and composing songs, playing musical instruments, sewing intricate bead designs, telling stories, playing games, visiting, or just lying around and resting.”4 The fact that the first three items on this list involve music gives us a sense of its importance in this sort of society. Given the unchanging nature of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, we can safely assume that music has always been a very important component of human life.
One of the basic ideas behind Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is that if a particular activity is very widespread and extremely old, it’s probably because that activity is useful to the survival of the species involved. So in the past, music must have had a positive effect on human survival, and this must be one of the main reasons why it exists.
But what use could music have as a survival tool? Darwin himself puzzled over this question and eventually decided that we must use music in the same way that birds do. His conclusion was that people perform music to show how healthy and skillful they are, in order to attract sexual partners. In fact there is no need to actually perform; you just have to look the part. A group of French researchers led by Nicolas Guéguen conducted a study which showed that a particular young man was twice as successful at getting girls to give out their phone number if he was holding a guitar case.5
But if being a musician was the best way to attract mates, every teenage party would be clogged up with spotty hopefuls carrying xylophones and tubas. So there must be more to music than simple sexual display.
There is plenty of evidence that music bonds groups of people together across a wide range of situations, from grief to celebration, and bonded groups are more likely to survive because they cooperate better when things go wrong.6 Revolutions thrive on songs because they help to draw the revolutionaries into a single group. The same effect can be seen with crowds of sports fans.
Although the words of these group-bonding songs often have some emotional content, that’s not always the case. One of the most popular anthems sung by fans of my local soccer team, Notts County, is called “The Wheelbarrow Song.” The lyrics to this masterpiece go as follows:
I had a wheelbarrow, the wheel fell off,
I had a wheelbarrow, the wheel fell off.
These moving and uplifting lines are followed by a chant of:
County! (clap-clap-clap) County! (clap-clap-clap)
There are at least three slightly unconvincing stories about how this song came to see the light of day, but the only reason why several thousand people continue to sing it at every match is that it conveys a simple message—to the singers, and to everyone else: “We’re Notts County supporters—and you’re not” (with a side order of “and we don’t take things too seriously”).
Whether you’re an ice hockey team, a group of ABBA fans, or members of a religious sect, communal singing will bind you together and encourage you to help one another if things start going badly. Nowadays this bonding might simply mean that you check that all of your group are on the bus before you set off for home. Thousands of years ago it would have led to better cooperation in hunting, or in fighting off enemies or predators. In fact, the bonding that comes from communal singing may well still be saving lives today among platoons of U.S. marines and other soldiers who sing while marching or training. The singing helps the rhythm of the marching, reduces the boredom of the long treks, and helps to make the group into a self-supporting team.
Sexual advertising and group bonding give us part of the answer to the question “Why does music exist?” but the theory I like best concentrates on the importance of mothers* singing to their babies.
Lullabies and play songs
The outstanding feature of human babies, compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, is that they are so totally helpless for such a ridiculously long time. Zebras, for example, have a much more get-up-and-go attitude. A baby zebra can run with the rest of the herd within a few hours of birth and will reach adulthood in about three years. It’s true that zebras don’t develop to the extent that they can write historical novels or play pool, but a six-month-old zebra is a master of predator evasion, while a six-month-old human is just a tasty snack.
Busy parents, from the hunter-gatherers of forty thousand years ago to twenty-first-century advertising executives, have always known that you can’t do very much if you are holding a baby. Among apes the answer to this problem is that the baby clings to the mother’s body hair, but humans don’t have much body hair, so this isn’t an option. This means that human babies need to be put down quite a lot of the time, and as we all know, this often upsets the little blighters. Babies are not good at regulating their emotions, and their parents have to spend a lot of time soothing and calming them. Cuddling and stroking are good ways to calm a baby, but if you’ve just put little Jessica down so you can get on with cooking the evening meal, you need a non-contact method of providing comfort. Singing or humming is an obvious choice. Initially you might try to lull her to sleep with your melodious outpourings, but if this doesn’t work, she will still be calmed and reassured by your song, even if she can’t necessarily see you.
All human cultures sing to their children and have done so for thousands of years. Plato wrote about the beneficial effects of lullabies on children over two thousand years ago,7 and the fact that lullabies are similar all over the world is a strong indicator that singing and humming as a means of soothing babies goes right back to the beginnings of human history.8
Of course, not all parental singing is aimed at calming the baby down; there are also cheerful and stimulating play songs for youngsters, such as “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Babies like it when their mother talks to them in sing-songy motherese, but they love it even more when she sings to them. You might wonder how I can state this point with such confidence. Well, that’s because psychologists Takayuki Nakata and Sandra Trehub have carried out an experiment that confirms it.9 You can tell when a baby is enjoying what her mum is doing because she pays attention. She looks at her mother’s face and stops wriggling around so much. Knowing this, our two psychologists played several babies videotapes of their mums either singing or talking and monitored how interested the infants were. The singing clearly won the day.
One probable reason why babies preferred the singing is that songs are more predictable than speech. Mothers usually have a small repertoire of songs that they tend to sing in a ritualized way, so the whole performance is comforting and familiar to the child. In contrast, motherese often involves questions, which babies sometimes find a bit too stimulating. And before you accuse me of overestimating the ability of babies to comprehend questions, I’d better explain myself. If Imogen’s mother says, “Who’s a good little girl then?” with a motherese lilt, six-month-old Imogen is stimulated, but not because she’s considering the nature of goodness and how it pertains to the fact that she’s just vomited milk down Mum’s silk shirt. Babies haven’t got a clue what you’re asking, but when you ask a question you usually raise the pitch of your voice toward the end of the sentence. Humans as well as other primates find rising pitches toward the end of utterances stimulating rather than relaxing, since rising pitches indicate that the utterance was important and that a response is necessary. Apart from these frequent questions, motherese is often punctuated by odd noises, hand movements, and tickling. In fact, if you overdo the motherese stimulation, your little one will start averting her eyes, deliberately ignoring you so she can calm down a bit.
In another experiment, Sandra Trehub’s team at the University of Toronto monitored the level of cortisol in the saliva of six-month-old babies before and after their mothers sang to them, and they discovered something unexpected.10 The level of cortisol in your saliva (or blood) is a measure of how stimulated (or stressed) you are. The Toronto scientists expected that the sound of their mothers singing play songs would always lower babies’ cortisol levels, and indeed that’s what happened if the babies were feeling a little overstimulated and had a high level to begin with. Some of the babies, however, were obviously feeling a bit dopey and chilled out before the singing started and had low levels of cortisol. As Mum started singing, these kids became more stimulated and their cortisol rose to a level that was suitable for paying attention and enjoying the experience.
So play songs are calming and fun for babies if they feel a little stressed, and stimulating and fun if they are feeling dopey. It has also been found that, when children are upset, play songs calm them down more effectively than lullabies.11 This is because rousing play songs are more engaging and distracting than slower-moving, lower-pitched songs. Lullabies work best when the baby is already feeling content.
Sandra Trehub has also found that North American mothers don’t use lullabies as much as mothers in many other cultures. North American mothers interact with their kids face-to-face, singing jolly songs, because their goals are largely playful. In many other cultures mothers spend a lot of time carrying their infants, and there is often less face-to-face contact. These mothers tend to sing lullabies and soothing songs rather than play songs because their goal is to calm their children and/or send them to sleep.12
So, as a rough rule of thumb, it’s motherese for stimulation, play songs for contentment, and lullabies for sleep.
Clearly, for the first few years of your life one of the most enjoyable things you experience is your mother singing to you (yes, and you, Dad; and you, siblings; and even Great Aunt Geraldine, as long as she puts both of her cigarettes out first).
Maternal singing is a good candidate for the reason why most of us grow up to love music: it’s nearly always associated with enjoyment and pleasant outcomes (play or sleep) at a time when we are at our most receptive.
After babyhood we move on to kindergarten, and here, once again, musical activities such as classroom sing-alongs are some of the best parts of our day. The link between happiness and music at this age is very clear: if a child is singing, either to herself or with others, you know she is in a good mood and content with life.
As you reach your teen years, just about every interaction you’ve had with music has been enjoyable and now it’s time to claim your own musical space—one that only you and your friends truly understand. Your musical choices help define you; they are part of your identity.
Historically, the need to build, maintain, and develop a personal identity is a fairly new thing. If you were born in 1730 into a family of farmers, farriers, or fishermen, the basic framework of your identity would be handed to you automatically. You and everyone around you would know roughly who you were and how you were likely to be spending the next few days, months, and decades. Some adventurous folk would create new lives for themselves, but in general, people went with the flow, without realizing that there was a flow carrying them along.
But nowadays it’s not so simple.
In the modern world we are surrounded by options about where to go, what to do, and who to be, and the choices we make help to define who we are. For many of us the creation of our musical identity plays a central role in this self-definition process.13 Music as a tool of self-definition is particularly important during our adolescent years, and we listen to more music during this period than we do at any other time in our lives.14 In early adolescence our musical tastes tend to be for pop, rock, and dance music. In general we like our music to be defiant (of boring older people and their boring old music), but we tend to align our preferences with those of the main pack of young teens. In later adolescence we become, in our musical taste as well as other things, less randomly defiant but more individual and adventurous. We even gain enough confidence to admit that we sometimes like to listen to Sinatra or the Beatles, despite the fact that most of our peers disagree. Apart from these individual flavorings, though, there is still a general tendency to fall in love with whatever modern subgenre our friends like. As I mentioned back in chapter one, as adolescents we want to feel cool, and optimum coolness comes from having a group of friends who share a definite, but non-mainstream, taste in music. But even if one of the original reasons why you listen to a certain sort of music is to be socially accepted, that doesn’t mean that you don’t genuinely love it. Music is lovable, and you love the music you are most familiar with.
As we move from late adolescence into early adulthood, we accept a broader range of music into our lives, but unfortunately, most of us don’t continue to do so as we get older. American researchers Morris Holbrook and Robert Schindler have looked into this in some detail and have shown that the development of our taste for popular music reaches a peak when we are in our early twenties and declines after that.15 In their book The Social and Applied Psychology of Music, Adrian North and David Hargreaves are clearly amused to tell us that they
cannot resist pointing out that findings concerning the crystallization of musical taste during late adolescence/early adulthood might explain the common observation that “Today’s music is rubbish compared with that of… [insert year of your choice].16
Although we don’t seek out new musical experiences with as much enthusiasm as we grow older, we don’t actually remain musically frozen in time. We retain a particular love of the popular music we fell for between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, but we often develop a taste for more complex music, like jazz and classical. This is probably because, by the time we are thirty, we have listened to so much popular music that the genres involved (pop, rock, blues, rap, etc.) have become too predictable and therefore boring. A lot of erstwhile punk rockers and rap fans have no doubt surprised themselves by their slow drift toward jazz and/or classical, but it’s simply a sign that they have become expert listeners to straightforward popular music and nothing in it surprises or stimulates them anymore. Finding a new genre that provides enough musical complexity to stimulate this expert brain can be a bit of a struggle at first because it’s difficult to know where to start,* but whatever new genre you settle upon will add to your musical pleasure without dimming the love you have for the music of your youth.
One primary aspect of our enjoyment of music is pattern recognition. The human brain is, among other things, an amazingly impressive pattern recognition machine. A pattern involves a certain amount of repetition and predictability, and when most of us think about patterns, the first things that spring to mind are the sorts of repeating designs you might get on fabric or wallpaper, like this:
Since the ability to recognize patterns is a very efficient way of making sense of our surroundings, our brain has evolved to make us feel rewarded whenever we successfully identify one. Designs like this one give our brain pleasure because they are predictable, but only if they aren’t too boring. We are stimulated by complexities in a pattern or combinations of patterns. Unexpected breaks in, or changes to, patterns also add extra interest and increase arousal.
Nor do patterns have to be perfectly repeating to be pleasing; the branches and thorns on this bush are not precisely evenly spaced, or all the same shape, but our brain categorizes them into a pattern anyway.
Of course, in music we don’t experience visual patterns spread out in space like this. Instead we hear patterns that repeat in time.
The most obvious time-based musical pattern is the rhythm. If we hear a pattern such as bom-diddy-bom-bom, bom-diddy-bom-bom, we expect more of the same or perhaps a change to something similar: bom-diddy-diddy-bom, for example. The idea that a rhythm is a pattern is fairly straightforward, but the fact that both the pitch and timbre of any note are also patterns is not so obvious. You might remember this illustration of the pressure waves produced by various instruments from earlier in the book:
Clearly these are patterns of vibration, which differ from instrument to instrument. The patterns also alter if the pitch of the note changes, and our pattern recognition system monitors all the pitches and timbres of the harmony, as well as the string of notes that make up the melody.
If we combine two or more notes, we change the pattern of vibration of the eardrum, which means that harmonies are also identified by pattern recognition:
So when we listen to music, our pattern recognition systems are extremely busy identifying the pitch, melody, timbre, harmony, and rhythm of what’s being played.
“Very interesting,” you might say, “but what has this to do with why I love music?”
All will become clear in a minute, but first I need to explain that we have three types of memory:
✵ Your short-term memory is simply used for storage of what happened over the last few seconds. This is the memory that, as I mentioned in chapter ten, can deal with only about seven different things in play at any one time—which is why musical keys have only about seven notes in them.
✵ Your long-term memory can store any number of things for years on end (but with varying degrees of accuracy).
✵ Your working memory isn’t just a storage device; it’s an information organizing system that makes sense of the stuff kept in the short-term memory by comparing it with any relevant information filed away in the long-term memory.
Information is taken into the short-term memory and processed in the working memory, where our pattern recognition skills come into play. We humans have a good working memory for things we see and hear. Monkeys, although they have a very good visual working memory, have a poor aural working memory (which is probably why they don’t like music). Our highly effective working memory for sounds enables us to deal with long, complicated tunes (or spoken sentences), and is particularly useful when we hear a new piece of music.
When we listen to a piece of music for the first time, our working memory helps us to build up expectations and predictions of what is likely or unlikely to happen next in the rhythm, harmony, timbre, and melody. In the context of music, and from the point of view of a particular individual, a prediction can have one of three outcomes:
1. It can turn out to be correct (e.g., you expected a big, warm final chord to come next, and that’s what happened);
2. It can turn out to have been under-optimistic (e.g., you expected a big, warm final chord but the music did something unexpected and delightful); or
3. It can turn out to have been over-optimistic (e.g., you expected a big, warm final chord but something less pleasant happened).
Neuroscientists Robert Zatorre and Valorie Salimpoor have used high-tech brain scanning techniques to analyze what happens inside our heads when we listen to music and found that when we are listening to a new piece of music, a particular area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens is very active.17 This bit of our brain is linked to making predictions, anticipation, and working out whether a particular prediction was eventually correct.
If a prediction turns out to be correct, dopamine is released into our brain (as a reward for predicting the future correctly), and we experience pleasure. Dopamine release is the way we encourage ourselves to repeat behavior that is good for us as individuals and for the human race—like eating and sex. Being good at forecasting things in any context is obviously useful from a survival point of view, so a correct forecast is rewarded by a shot of dopamine.
If a prediction is found to be under-optimistic, then we also get a dopamine release, because things turned even more pleasantly than expected.
If a prediction is over-optimistic, our nucleus accumbens says to itself, “Well, you got that wrong and nothing nice happened. No dopamine this time—you don’t deserve a reward.”
This prediction-based reward-system process can’t work for music we are familiar with, because we already know what’s going to happen next. However, we do experience dopamine rewards when listening to our favorite music, and Drs. Zatorre and Salimpoor have an explanation for this. They found that another area of the brain called the caudate nucleus becomes very active when we hear the notes just before our favorite bits in music we know well. This part of our brain is associated with anticipation of things we desire. During this anticipation period we get a dose of dopamine, which is actually triggered by the unexciting stuff we hear in the lead-up to our favorite parts of the music. This is similar to the anticipatory pleasure we get as we buy a sandwich when we are hungry. The anticipation mechanism is just as important for survival as the mechanism that assesses how well our predictions are working out. A reward system for forecasting correctly needs to be backed up by an anticipation system that encourages you to keep on doing certain things again and again (eating, drinking, listening to the Rolling Stones, etc.).
The science fiction writer Iain M. Banks set several of his novels in a highly advanced civilization called “the Culture,” the inhabitants of which are rather like upgraded humans. These superior beings have glands that can produce various mood-or performance-enhancing chemicals at will. Just by thinking about it, they can internally generate substances that help them sleep, or stay alert, or calm down. This might strike you as an impossible futuristic idea—but it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. We normal humans have the capacity to secrete similar chemicals; the only difference is that we don’t usually have any conscious control over the supply. The chemicals in question are, of course, adrenaline, serotonin, dopamine, and so on. Generally these substances are triggered automatically in response to what’s going on around us: if you nearly fall off your bike, you’ll get a surge of adrenaline; if your beloved partner kisses you, then you’ll get a serotonin hit.
Listening to music is one of the ways in which we can generate these chemicals at will. If you feel the need for some adrenaline to perk you up for a party, try putting on “Baby’s on Fire” by Brian Eno. If you need cheering up with a dollop of dopamine and/or serotonin, just play any of your favorite songs and those substances will seep into your brain. Even imagining yourself listening to the piece of music in question can trigger the desired response. All we need now are faster-than-light spaceships, artificial intelligence, and lots of three-legged aliens to battle, and “the Culture” will be ours.
Leaving aside the three-legged aliens, this is a pretty amazing capability. It’s taken millennia of evolution and the growth of technology to get to the point where we can actually influence our mental state at the flick of a switch (or play button). This is, of course, why so many of us spend the day plugged in to personal music systems.
And so we come to the end of our journey through the psychology of music.
Since the mid-twentieth century, psychologists and sociologists, musicologists and neurologists, have learned a great deal about the effects music has on us, but there are still a lot of areas that need exploring. In the future we will certainly know more, but I’m sure we’ll never run out of questions, and frankly, I think that’s a good thing.
Music has the power to alleviate depression, reduce perceived pain, help you cope with various illnesses and disorders, reduce boredom, aid relaxation, help you focus on a physical task, help you bond with others, reduce stress, improve your mood, and fill your life with emotions from nostalgia to joy.
No wonder you love it.