Jazzing it Up: The Science Behind Why We Listen to Music

Story by Bhavna Sud. Illustration by Carolyn Duan

The soft music drifts beautifully across the MV rally court, lighting up everyone’s faces as it does so. Some begin to dance, as others sing along, and still others sit there with their friends, laughing as their stress begins to melt away.

Today, music is considered by most as central to human society — both for promoting happiness and for bringing people together. Music has been part of society since the dawn of mankind. Even as far back as 43,000 years ago, humans were playing flutes made of mammoth ivory and bird bone.

Yet this brings up a question that has been troubling scientists for decades — why has humanity been listening to music for so long? It seems to have no evolutionary purpose, so how can a collection of seemingly randomly chosen sounds have any positive effect on us?

To answer this question, let’s take a deeper look at the effect music has on our brains. 

Looking At the Research

According to researchers from McGill University, music actually has a distinct connection to the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain. In a study they conducted, the researchers asked eight participants to listen to music as they viewed PET scans from their brains. These scans revealed an amazing relationship — during peak points of “emotional arousal” in the music, dopamine was released in the striatum, the reward section of the brain.

Researchers observe PET scans of volunteers’ brains as they listen to music Source: NewAtlas/Paul Ridden
Researchers observe PET scans of volunteers’ brains as they listen to music
Source: NewAtlas/Paul Ridden

These researchers discovered more than a simple chemical relationship — their research revealed a direct connection between a simple rhythmic arrangement of sounds and human happiness. Stating it simply, they proved that music is not something that came from human culture, but we actually evolved to create music, programming it into our brains to provide us happiness and relieve our stress.

And while the science to prove these ideas is fairly recent, most people already know they can listen to music to feel better. For junior Zazu Lippert, for example, music is not only one of her passions, but a key element that she uses to de-stress on a daily basis, whether it be listening to music, singing in drama, or playing piano.

“Music has always been one of those things that helps me de-stress because even when I get home, if I play piano I feel a little better, even if I have, you know, a whole bunch of assignments due the next day — it just helps sort of clear my head,” she said. “I think when I’m focusing on the music I’m thinking less about all of the other things that I’m worried about.”

In addition to increasing happiness, however, many do not realize the less known evolutionary benefits of music. Researchers from Stanford University conducted a study analyzing brain activity during pauses between different sections of music. They found that music trains the ventral fronto-temporal network, which is activated when the brain notices change, and and the dorsal fronto-parietal network, which adds the change to memory. This helps the brain hone its ability to pay attention and anticipate what will happen next.

For Lippert, she notices this benefit not in listening to music, but in songwriting. As she explains, songwriting helps her pay attention and understand change in both the world around her and herself.

“For me, I think it’s just helpful with getting my ideas out on paper,” she said. “When I have something that I’m thinking about, if it’s something that I’m facing in life…and I feel like it needs to be put down or expressed in some way, then that’s usually where I go.”

A Creative Use

MV Calculus BC teacher Jon Stark has an interesting use for music — one which many teachers should consider implementing in their own classrooms. At the beginning of every class period, he plays a new song for his students, from classics by the Beatles to exotic Spanish operas. He then encourages them to guess when and where they are from, and which artist they are by.

“I’ve been doing this for maybe three years now — something like that, in part because of response to concerns about student’s stress, believe it or not,” he said. “My perception is that this course really winds a lot of people up tight, and that they get very worried about it, they’re terrified of my tests […] I decided I wanted a different mood in the class than some people came in with.”

Stark uses music to get his students more comfortable and make them feel at home in his classroom, trying to help them forget the difficulties of one of the hardest courses in the school. In addition to this, however, one of his main purposes to expose students to a variety of cultures they cannot find anywhere else.

“What I ask about the music, it’s going to be things people don’t recognize, you know?” he said. “So I want them to make a guess — where’s the singer from, what language is this in, what kind of music is this, when would this have been done, that sort of thing.”

 

Stark’s use of music takes music farther than just its evolutionary purpose in the brain — he is able to use it for his students’ benefit. And this is just one example of the numerous ways that music has been used in history. Some use it for helping their concentration or for specific cultural rituals, while others play instruments because they simply like the way they sound. Most, however, simply listen to music because it gives them a sense of joy.

Music is not simply an element that has been added to our culture over the years — since the dawn of humanity, it has been wired into our brains to provide us happiness, aid in our concentration, and train us to understand change in the world around us. While it may just be a random assortment of sounds to other animals, for humans, music gives us a melody to live by.