Starting in sixth grade, my piano teacher would have me pick out a piece to study and perform at state solo and ensemble contest. One year in high school, I prepared Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune, and it remains one of the most captivating piano works I have ever heard. It is one of those pieces of music that gives me goose bumps. Although it is a common piece for many pianists to study, I could never grow tired of its hauntingly beautiful tonal structure and mood.
How is it that music can be so mesmerizing and captivating that it can move us to tears or give us the chills? Why does music move us?
I set out to do a little research this week and found out there are a surprisingly large number of people (from disciplines ranging from neuroscience to psychology) who are studying music perception and cognition. There are several institutes dedicated to studying music and brain science, and there are also many academic conferences addressing the cognitive neuroscience of music. Although advances in technology have brought us helpful research tools like functional MRI (fMRI) imaging of the brain, much about musical processing and cognition remains a mystery.
How exactly do we translate sound into music?
The process by which our brains translate sounds into music is quite complex. Millions of neurons work together to transmit sound vibrations from the inner ear to the auditory portions of the brain. Pitch itself is a mental phenomenon, tied uniquely to the frequency of a particular sound wave.
What brain structures are involved in processing & interpreting music?
After sounds are translated into electrical impulses in the brain, we analyze and interpret what we hear through a series of complex interactions between several different areas of the brain. Not only are the auditory areas of the brain active in processing music, but so too are the emotional and social processing areas.
Research has shown that the stronger the connections between the auditory and emotion/social processing areas, the more likely it is that a person will have physical-emotional responses to music (such as getting goose bumps or teary-eyed). The emotional and social processing areas of the brain are also related to the functional memory areas of the brain, which has led some to suggest that differences in personal preferences of music are attributable to the way a person’s memories process and interpret sound.
In addition to these active areas of the brain, the dopamine reward circuitry is also engaged when listening to music, giving music a pleasurable effect similar to eating food and being in love.
The intricate interactions between the perceptive and cognitive functions of the brain along with the memory and emotion parts of the brain somehow drive us to like or dislike music. Based on our life experiences, memories, and the strength of the neural connections between different areas of our brain, we interpret and respond to music uniquely.
In the end, I still don’t really know why music moves us. Music does a lot for people—gives pleasure, imparts therapeutic healing, provides a universal form of emotional communication across all cultures, and helps define who we are.
Do any specific instances of listening to or performing music stand out to you as being particularly moving?