Updated: Dec 14, 2021
The Science Behind Why People Listen to Music
People all around the world listen to music. From evoking a range of emotional responses to inspiring creativity and imagination, music can positively affect us in countless ways. From a scientific perspective, however, there is no evolutionary advantage to listening to music. Unlike finding pleasure in necessary activities like eating or sleeping, music does not increase our survivability as a species. So why is enjoying music such a universal experience, and what makes us enjoy it?
Patterns in Music
Music is full of patterns, from repeated chord progressions to verse and chorus patterns, throughout a song. One reason music strongly appeals to humans is because our brains are hard-wired to understand patterns. Studies show that pattern-solving activates the same part of the brain which is associated with rewards. This means that when we listen to music and recognize a pattern in it, our brains trigger a pleasurable response. This tendency towards patterns is also why pop music is so popular. Pop music is full of predictable chord progressions and typical song structures, making patterns easily recognizable, and thus, the music is widely appreciated.
The human ear is sensitive to certain ratios of pitch frequencies, making certain intervals pleasant to listen to. Intervals such as fifths, fourths, and octaves are all made of simple integer ratios and are thus more appealing. For example, a fifth is made up of a pitch frequency ratio of 3:2 making this interval consonant. These simple intervals appeal to our ears on the neuronal level. Sensory neurons send signals to the brain in reaction to sound and fire in a consistent pulse when hearing consonant intervals. Since our brains function better with patterns, these regular pulses carry more information to our brain, making us enjoy consonant music.
Empathy and Emotion
Music is enjoyable for more reasons than just patterns and pitch relationships; it also appeals to our emotions. Music triggers parts of our brain which respond to speech, making our brains react to music in an empathetic manner. Because humans often mirror the feelings of others, we also mirror the emotions portrayed through music. Our brains also release dopamine, often called the feel-good chemical, when we hear an emotional moment in a song. Dopamine can have an addicting affect, making people almost addicted to the emotions they feel through music.
Despite these many theories on why we enjoy music, there is still more research to be done. Whatever these reasons may be, stay curious and keep on listening!
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