Why Do Humans Love Listening to Music?

Simply put, music is ubiquitous in our day-to-day lives.

It has become the background track to our lives, even if we only subconsciously notice it. Whether you are grocery shopping, attending a basketball game, or on hold with your cable company, music is often present.

This is not even discussing the more conscious uses of music, whether we are studying for a big exam, commuting to work on the subway, or even playing an instrument (or instruments) that we love.

Sure, listening to music could simply be an ingrained habit. It could be something that is our “go-to medicine” when we feel anxious or stressed. But on the other hand, we also consciously choose to listen to music to make us feel happy or excited. Music can be an antidote to some of the strongest emotions that we face throughout the day.

Regardless of the reason why we listen to music, there is one key question that emerges: why do all of us love listening to music?

The answer may be more complex than you think. It requires an exploration of the way our bodies work and how early humans communicated and reacted to danger.

Ultimately, however, it is clear that music will continue to remain a treasured part of human life for the foreseeable future.


How Does The Brain Respond To Music?

Before we dig into why we love music, it’s helpful to first understand what happens to our brains when we listen to music.

While each person does not have the same exact experience when listening to music, there are some common behaviors amongst all humans. These behaviors are inherent within almost all of us, regardless of race, sex, background, or any other personal attributes.

There have been several illuminating studies on how music affects the human brain. To start off, there is one fascinating study that shows that music can provide a key benefit to our psychological well-being. It can literally feel like a friend.

That is one of the key takeaways in a recent study by a relatively recent study published in a journal titled Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. In the study, researchers conducted two experiments on the subjects, whose brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (“fMRI”). In the first experiment, the subjects listened to brief isolated music timbres while their brains were scanned. In the second experiment, the subjects listened to music excerpts in four conditions (familiar liked, familiar disliked, unfamiliar liked, and unfamiliar disliked). Before the brain scans, the researchers also tested the subjects on their empathy by determining how they “read” different situations that they encountered.

The results of the study are quite detailed (to learn more, please click here). But having said that, the bottom line is that the brain activities of subjects who were highly empathetic appeared similar to brain activity when that individual is part of a social experience.

Along with that study, there are fascinating discoveries about what is going on “underneath the hood” when our brain hears music. The Stanford University School of Medicine completed a brain imaging study which revealed that the brains of people listening to the same piece of music respond in the same way.

Specifically, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study research participants as they were listening to the same piece of classical music by 18th century English composer William Boyce (which research participants hadnt heard before). At the conclusion of the study, the researchers found that there was a distributed network of brain structures whose activity levels rose and fell in a strikingly similar pattern.

Another finding shows that our brains can even treat music in the same manner as when we confront life and death scenarios. According to research published in Nature Neuroscience, music causes our brains to release dopamine, which subsequently arouses feelings of euphoria and craving.

In fact, that dopamine hit is strongest when a particular piece of music hits its peak, which causes the listener to feel the “chills.” Whether you are listening to the climax of Fix You by Coldplay or Gustav Holst’s The Planets, you have undoubtedly felt those moments where your body has a visceral reaction to what you are hearing.

We can think of this another way. Simply put, listening to music helps us feel good. If we are sad or depressed, we can turn on music and the release of dopamine in our brains is going to make us feel better. Music, in effect, is a drug that provides us with feelings of joy and pleasure.

However, this hit of dopamine from listening to music is puzzling for one particular reason. Often, the brain releases dopamine when we are doing something to ensure our survival. Some of the stereotypical examples of these survival activities are sleeping and eating. Music isn’t biologically compulsory to our day-to-day survival.

There is no clear answer to this question. However, there are some promising theories that may help us understand why music occupies such an important part in our lives.


Social Patterns Within Music

One of the most mainstream theories on why music triggers the same sequences that ensure our survival is that music is about expectations.

According to Leonard Meyer, music, like emotion, sets up sonic patterns and regularities. These patterns and regularities cause us to make unconscious predictions of what is around the corner. If our prediction is right, our brain delivers a dopamine hit, which we feel as a sense of pleasure.

While these unconscious predictions and anticipatory feelings may not be a matter of life and death today, they were when humans emerged in the African savannah.

Making predictions about the environment was critical to the survival of early humans. Even though we may look at a bush rumbling and simply brush it off, early humans did not have that luxury. Behind that bush could potentially be their next meal. Or, more troubling, humans themselves could be the next meal for a predator behind that bush.

Because of this, early humans paid close attention to sound and their emotions. The mental processing of sound, for instance, could unleash a wave of adrenaline that would cause a human to run away.

Even though we as a society have clearly developed from those days on the African savannah, our brains have not developed as quickly. Evolution is an extremely slow process. Our brains have not yet adapted to modern life in the 21st century. Music has a direct line to our emotions—even though it may not be necessary in order to survive in our day-to-day life. We cannot turn off this instinct. It is there and will continue to be there throughout your lifetime.

In addition to Meyer’s theory, some have theorized that music can almost be characterized as a protolanguage.

In fact, Charles Darwin is one of the original inspirations behind this theory. Darwin suggested that the evolution of vocal imitation, which is a key aspect in the evolution of spoken language, was driven by sexual selection and predominantly used “in producing true musical cadences, that is in singing.” He further suggests that this protolanguage based on music would have been leveraged in courtship, territoriality, and in expressing emotions like jealousy, triumph, and love. 

Ultimately, this idea that music is just an emotionally-charged, exaggerated version of speech is compelling. Once again, it is not critical for survival in our day-to-day lives. That said, the pace of evolution is so slow that our brains continue to be triggered by music to serve goals of courtship and survival.


The Power of Music in Everyday Life

Music is fascinating in that it is ever-present in our lives.

It is so ubiquitous that we often don’t even realize that it is playing.

Having said that, there is no definite answer on why we are so attracted to music. While there are some compelling theories, there is no definitive answer to why we receive a hit of dopamine when we hear music.

Regardless of the reason, our brains certainly don’t sit still. They respond in tangible (almost mechanical) ways, which create different types of feelings and emotions. While there may not be a biological necessity for why we are so attracted to music, the attraction certainly remains.

In fact, there is simply nothing we can do to eliminate these attractions. But why would we want to? Music can liven or spice up our lives. It can make us introspective when we are feeling down or discouraged. And it can inspire or motivate us when we are going on a road trip or even when we are near the finish line of a marathon. Whatever the scenario, music plays (and will continue to play) a vital part of our lives.

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