This Is Your Brain On Music

When you leave your house, what do you take with you? Your keys, your wallet, your cell phone, and, if you’re like most us, your headphones. Music is so much a part of our lives that we wouldn’t even think to leave the house without it — imagine the horror of the MTA without your tunes!

But why do we care about music? Why do we cry when we hear Tiny Dancer (don’t judge us, Elton John is a global treasure) and want to dance whenever we hear Sorry (again, don’t pretend you don’t love it). What’s the difference between a song and a speech? They’re both just sound waves, but they affect us in profoundly different ways. What’s the deal?

Deep Cuts For Your Deep Brain

Music has always been a sort of puzzle for biologists. If a trait doesn’t help us survive or reproduce, according to the theory of natural selection, then that trait shouldn’t survive in the species. It’s tough to see how music could help us survive — singing for your supper is a notoriously difficult way to fill your belly! So, some experts speculate that humans’ musical facility must have evolved as a tool used for courtship.

Recent research, however, suggests that music is much more fundamental to the human experience and may indeed have been a survival mechanism. As neuroscience advances, we’re learning that music occupies its own unique neural territory — it’s separate from the neural structures that relate to language. People can have accidents or disorders that affect their language skills and not their musical skills, and vice versa. Even newborn babies have musical preferences and will react differently to major and minor chords. In other words, it looks like music occupies its own place of honor in our evolved suite of survival skills.

So, what’s it good for? It doesn’t make our crops grow, build us shelters, or hunt our dinners for us. Professor Stephen Mithlin, an archaeologist from England’s Reading University, suggests that music’s survival value comes from its power to manipulate our emotional states. We use it, he suggests, to create a feeling of unity in a group and a social identity.

The Teardrops On Our Guitars

Is it possible that Professor Mithlin is right? That humans have evolved the ability to make music because it affects our emotional states in some way that’s different from speech?

It certainly jives with our anecdotal experience — just try listening to the Les Misérables soundtrack without shedding a tear. In middle school we made mixtapes for our friends and crushes because we felt those songs said something we couldn’t articulate in speech. We use parade marches to build martial fervor, pop songs to get people excited, and funeral dirges to show our grief and respect for the dead. We listen to punk when we’re angry, classical when we’re working, house when we’re working out, and classic rock when we’re on the open road.

But you don’t have to accept it on the basis of our anecdotal experience — there’s science to back it up. When you hear music, your brain lights up like a Christmas tree. Your sensory-motor processing centers and the parts of your brain responsible for memory, cognition, and emotion all fire up in response to a tune. Music also makes you feel less self-conscious and inhibited — it shuts down the part of your brain that self-monitors (and self-judges). As the icing on top of the cake, a moderate level of background noise improves our abstract processing skills. In other words, music affects our moods and thought processes on a fundamental, biological level.

Pump Up The Jams

So the next time you’re in an Uber with your friends and Rihanna comes on, don’t feel bad about belting it out. You’re just opening your mind and building a stronger emotional rapport with your buddies. Music is good for you as an individual and as a member of society — it’s science.

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