People often say that music is a universal language, one that can be understood by all, (all that can hear it that is) irrespective of culture, religion, gender, ethnicity, etc. It is seen as the language of the soul. Now I shall not debate on the existence of the soul, but we can all agree that the sentiment is understood; music moves us.
It is this very powerful nature that drew me to it, that fueled my passion to become a music creator. The artist in me revels in this beauty, the gift to drive emotions using sounds, to reinforce lyrics with melodies. But the scientist in me has always wondered, why? Why does a sad song make us melancholy? Why do upbeat guitar ditties put smiles on our faces? Why do tribal drums release our primal desires? Why do we eagerly crave the bass drop in an EDM track? These questions continue to baffle. Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, called it one of “the most mysterious with which [humankind] is endowed”.
So what is it then? We’ll need to travel back to 2010 to get the answer; well part of the answer anyway. I’ll spare you the granular details, but according to findings published in Nature Neuroscience, by Montreal researchers:
“…intense pleasure in response to music can lead to dopamine release in the striatal system. Notably, the anticipation of an abstract reward can result in dopamine release in an anatomical pathway distinct from that associated with the peak pleasure itself. Our results help to explain why music is of such high value across all human societies.”
The striatal system is a sub region of the forebrain, one that is critical to the brain’s reward system. The release of dopamine into this area triggers emotional responses like bliss, craving, pleasure, etc, akin to sexual intimacy and the use of… cocaine. Suddenly the song ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll”, by Ian Dury, takes a much a deeper meaning. This opens the door to newer questions; can music be addictive? If you ask me, I’d say yes.
One thing is certain, our knowledge on this matter, much like our understanding of the universe, is still in its infancy. We have much to learn, and only time will tell if we ever unfold all of the secrets. But in the meantime, put on your headphones and navigate the emotional shores of a plethora of music. You might discover a new feeling, something you’ve never experienced before.
- Stephen Voyce