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Magical mystery called music

Magical mystery called music
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Ever wondered why the sweet notes of the saxophone tug at your heartstrings? Ever given a second thought to the warm tears that roll freely down your face when you’ve just broken up with your lover and are listening to Someone Like You by Adele? Ever managed to figure out why Auld Lang Syne gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling when you hear it play on every New Years Eve? I’m pretty sure not.

Because I haven’t, either. And, I sing for a living; one would hope I’d know a trade secret, or two, but sadly, music still remains as much of a mystery as it was when I was about three years old and sang my first few notes.

Although it probably seems obvious that music can evoke emotions, it is to this day not clear why. Why doesn’t music feel like listening to speech sounds, or animal calls, or garbage disposals? Why is music nice to listen to? Why does music get blessed with a multi-billion dollar industry, whereas there is no market for ‘easy listening’ speech sounds? Technically speaking, music is just a collection of sounds interspersed by silence. But every human being knows of pieces of music that really ‘touch’ him or her emotionally. These emotions can be very strong, and transport you to another ‘place’. How is it possible that a mere collection of sounds gets associated in our brain with memories, experiences, emotions, stories, images, and feelings?

In 2001, neuroscientists Anne Blood and Robert Zatorre at McGill University in Montreal provided an answer. Using magnetic resonance imaging they showed that people listening to pleasurable music had activated brain regions called the limbic and paralimbic areas, which are connected to euphoric reward responses, like those we experience from a great workout, good food, and addictive drugs. Those rewards come from a gush of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. As DJ Lee Haslam told us, music is the drug. But why would a sequence of sounds with no obvious survival value give us a dopamine rush?

The truth is no one knows. We all know that music has this direct line to the emotions: who hasn’t been embarrassed by the tears that well up as the strings swell in a sentimental film, even while the logical brain protests that this is just cynical manipulation? We can’t turn off this anticipatory instinct, nor its link to the emotions – even when we know that there’s nothing life-threatening in a Mozart sonata. “Nature’s tendency to overreact provides a golden opportunity for musicians”, says musicologist David Huron of Ohio State University. “Composers can fashion passages that manage to provoke remarkably strong emotions using the most innocuous stimuli imaginable.”

Science writer Philip Ball says, “the idea that musical emotion arises from little violations and manipulations of our expectations seems the most promising candidate theory”. This theory dates back to 1956 when the philosopher and composer Leonard Meyer suggested that emotion in music is all about what we expect, and whether or not we get it. Meyer drew on earlier psychological theories of emotion, which proposed that it arises when we’re unable to satisfy some desire. That, as you might imagine, creates frustration- but if we then find what we’re looking for, be it love or a good meal, the payoff is all the sweeter. This, Meyer argued, is what music does too. Ball adds, “it sets up sonic patterns and regularities that tempt us to make unconscious predictions about what’s coming next. If we’re right, the brain gives itself a little reward – as we’d now see it, a surge of dopamine. The constant dance between expectation and outcome thus enlivens the brain with a pleasurable play of emotions”.

But then, there’s no way to test Meyer’s theory because variables like cultural subsets, age, past experiences with a particular piece of music etcetera, come into play. For example, classical forms like waltz might seem ‘natural’ to Europeans, but people in the Caribbean dance happily to metres that sound extraordinarily complicated to others! And, then there is the idea that there still are emotions which we haven’t been able to define yet. Some music, like some of Bach’s, can create intense emotion even though we can’t quite put into words what the emotion is.

I’m not sure we’ll ever understand why music stimulates emotions until we have a better picture of what our emotional world is really like. And, given how dynamic human beings and life are, there’ll probably be new emotions arising every second day!

Music is always going to remain a mystery to me, and I’m not complaining. As they say, a little bit of mystery goes a long way in keeping the spark alive! J K Rowling summed it up rather beautifully in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. “Ah, music,” he (Dumbledore) said, wiping his eyes. “A magic beyond all we do here!” 

The author is a snotty single child, mountain junkie, playback singer, Austen addict and dreams of singing alongside Buddy Guy
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