By Jack Sharkey, October 23, 2014

If you're reading this, chances are you're a music fan. You may have very particular or very broad tastes. You may love the way it makes you feel or you may not even really care why you love music. But there's no getting around the fact that to varying degrees, you and every person you have ever met has a deep, personal relationship with music. There's a scientific reason for this.

One of the more profound books I've read is Dr. Daniel Levitin's The World In Six Songs. Dr. Levitin is a musician and a neuroscientist and in this book he posits the theory that our musical brains actually guided our human societal development. In short, where we came from and where we are now, culturally speaking, is a direct result of the strong interconnection between our musical brains and our intellects.

This is all because our human brains are hardwired to be musical.


Now Let's Talk About Why You Think Today's Music Sucks

Dr. Levitin and his research assistant Mona Lisa Chanda put it this way in a review they published in 2013 (Trends In Cognitive Sciences (April 2013, Vol 17, No 4):

Music can evoke a wide variety of strong emotions, including joy, sadness, fear, and peacefulness or tranquility, and people cite emotional impact and regulation as two of the main reasons why they listen to music. Music can produce feelings of intense pleasure or euphoria in the listener, sometimes experienced as ‘thrills’ or ‘chillsdown-the spine.’ 

Music acts on our brains the same way opiates and other drugs do. Music also excites the pre-frontal cortex associated with memory. So, when you're a kid, running around the neighborhood doing kid stuff, all kinds of hormones like oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin course through the brain centers that respond to rewards like joy and happiness. And sadness and rejection like when that gorgeous girl three blocks over made you wait outside for an hour on a November night before coming out and telling you she's going out with some 6'2" football lughead as opposed to a skinny 5'9" long-haired type who really doesn't like gym all that much (but no hard feelings or anything).

This means the music you were listening to while your brain was developing became hard-wired in your memory system, and hearing those songs brings back memories that are more intense than those memories built by hearing a equally good song while in your thirties or forties.

You think music sucks today because your brain already has intense musical memories that are personal to you and your particular journey. So lighten up on the kids a bit and let them fill up their brains with their own memories and emotions. This is also the unintentional reason why the largest consumers of music are people in their late teens and early twenties


Happy Song/Sad Song

When I'm not reading books I barely understand about subjects I can scarcely conceive, I watch clever YouTube videos by the Gregory Brothers. In this favorite, the Brothers Gregory do a mash-up of happy songs played in minor keys to make them sad, and sad songs played in major keys to make them happy. It's more interesting than it sounds... 

Although the aim of the video is to be funny and entertaining, there's something deeper here: The way the chords and notes intertwine with the emotion of the singer has a profound effect on the chemistry in our brains. Changing something as seemingly minor as the key the song is performed in drastically changes the entire emotional conveyance of the song. This is a result of our brain's interpretation of what it's hearing.

From Levitin and Chanda's report:

Musical pleasure is closely related to the intensity of emotional arousal. Even opposite emotional valences (e.g., ‘happy’ or ‘sad’) can be experienced as pleasurable and listeners often report that the most moving music evokes two or more emotions at once. Music does not have the clear survival benefit associated with food or sex, nor does it display the addictive properties associated with drugs of abuse. Nonetheless, the average person spends a considerable amount of time listening to music, regarding it as one of life’s most enjoyable activities.

That's why songs from your youth that are associated with sad memories or tough times bring you such peacefulness and happiness when you hear them now.

At it's very core, music is emotion and very personal. In the past ten years or so we have seen an explosion of music in our environments that has made music become depersonalized. If something is powerful enough to actually change the chemistry in our brains, shouldn't it deserve a higher place in our lives than background noise? Or worse yet, a tool to drown out background noise?

As Chanda and Dr. Levitin put it:

Many believe that music has special, mystical properties and that its effects are not readily reducible to a neuronal or neurochemical state. Advances in cognitive neuroscience have challenged this view, with evidence that music affects the same neurochemical systems of reward as other reinforcing stimuli.

All of that being said, I still think music is special and mystical, and even though I dig the science behind the report, I'd just as soon keep it that way.