Why Music Makes Us Feel: Emotionally, Neurologically and Historically

Music is pretty much all encompassing in the digital age.

It’s universal and can be heard in all types of advertisements, commercials and TV shows – most of which aren’t about the music itself.

Familiar tunes are constantly playing in grocery and department stores; the style of music normally based on the type of experience they want you to have.

Of course, we also have our personal favorites streaming through our headphones, computers, AUX cords and cars.

True, we all have varying preferences and differences in our frequency of listening to music. Characteristically though, most humans tend to enjoy it.

Photo credit: Lunamom58, Creative Commons, Original photo
Photo credit: Lunamom58, Creative Commons, Original photo

I have met only one person in my whole life that told me he didn’t really like listening to music. He must have been dropped one too many times on his head as a child, I guess.

Music just makes us feel good, even if it’s a sad melody. But why does music make us feel so good?

National Geographic conducted a study that shows that when we anticipate music to be played it arouses our brains from the get-go. Once it flows through our ears, our neurons react and it triggers a response, showing distinct brain activity.

This is where we either like, or dislike the music – a distinction that is not clear yet scientifically. I may never know why country doesn’t soothe me, but rock music does.

Neurologically speaking, we are rewarded with happiness through the form of dopamine when we listen to music.

Our reward circuit of dopamine within the brain that is responsible for processing those tangible activities needed for sustaining life (such as eating, drinking, sleeping and sex) is also is used for processing our experience of music.

Seems simple enough, but the interesting part is that the act of listening to music is an abstract activity – and such things are typically processed on a cognitive level, creating happiness through a slightly different process.

Does this mean that music is necessary in order to survive?

Maybe not, but perhaps it has helped us progress as human beings. Our ancient ancestors may have used it as a tool to connect socially and emotionally in their day-to-day lives, on a level that wasn’t just about survival.

Many would agree that harmonies of voices and a combining of instruments often sounds more appealing than a simple beat on a bongo. This thought may have occurred to early humans, stimulating a social construct within our brains to create and enjoy these sounds together.

All in all, music might just be what made the human race more than a species that merely survives for survival’s sake.