Your brain on music

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Uncovering the hidden power of music

Dietrich Neu
Features Editor

It motivates us, comforts us, relaxes us, brings us together, pushes us apart, and evokes nearly every emotion in the book. We display it like a badge of honour, hide it like a dirty secret. We become addicted to it, and become disgusted by it. It brings us both pleasure and pain. It changes our perspectives on life, and informs us about world issues. We use it to find people who we are likely to get along with, and avoid people we will most likely hate. It has echoed in the background of charging armies, hometown sporting events, and social gatherings. It can be created by geniuses, or small children. They can use millions of dollars worth of equipment, or a single finger. People will travel the world over to hear its sound.

Music is arguably the most powerful form of communication to arise from human consciousness, a phenomenon that permeates every corner of humanity.

“Music makes the world go round” may be a cliché, but it accurately sums up humankind’s fascination with music. Music has emerged over the course of history from every corner of the earth; every society has developed a musical culture that has broad-reaching implications on other aspects of life, such as social networks, artistic expression, and medical therapy.

For some, it is a drug they cannot give up. A 2009 study by the Synovate Institute in Brazil concluded that 49 per cent of Brazilians would listen to music every minute of the day if it was possible. The same study found that around 70 per cent of people around the world claim to be “highly passionate” about music, with only six per cent of them claiming to “care less.”

In Canada, studies conducted at the University of Montreal concluded that “pleasurable feelings associated with emotional music are the result of dopamine release in the striatum – the same anatomical areas that underpin the anticipatory and rewarding aspects of drug addiction.”

While music is usually thought of solely in terms of artistic expression and personal enjoyment, a plethora of psychological and sociological implications arise from music.

We use music as a method of communication, organization, personality analysis, enjoyment, and expression.

Although music is often viewed as being an auditory experience, even deaf individuals can experience the full effects of music by the vibrations they create in the air alone. Some of our most famous musicians had no hearing at all.   

Musical composition has arisen from every society known to exist. There has never been an observed culture that has not developed some kind of musical tradition.

In fact, music works its way into so many facets of all of our lives that it’s sometimes tough to even realize its impact – if we realize its impact at all.

A manifestation of personality

Hipsters, punks, rap heads, stoners, ravers, country boys and gals, metalheads. People are stereotype machines when it comes to categorizing others based on their musical interest.

One of the most profound yet least publicized effects of music is its implications on how we form relationships with others, and how we predict who to avoid.

While several people dismiss the idea that music can tell you a lot about someone’s personality, the facts swing the other way.

A 2005 study conducted at multiple universities around the globe titled “Message in a Ballad” found that our propensity to align with individuals who share the same musical tastes is not simply a matter of two people sharing a common interest. The lead researchers, Peter Rentfrow and Samule D. Gosling, concluded that when a person inquires into someone’s musical interests, they are actually trying to predict personality traits and values more than they are hunting for new friends to listen to Nickleback with while greasing up their hair.

The study found that music was the number one icebreaker for strangers who were forced to have a conversation with each other – around 60 per cent of the time, people chose to speak about music first.

This makes sense, given the goal of most initial conversations is to learn who you are dealing with. If learning about the person you are speaking with is the goal of an icebreaking conversation, learning about a person’s musical interests has emerged as one of the best methods to do so.

The study also found that people can accurately predict personality traits such as extroversion, openness to experiences, agreeableness, and emotional stability after learning about others’ musical preferences.

For instance, people who listened to hip-hop, country, or liked songs with enthusiasm, energy, and lots of singing were accurately predicted to be extroverted, even though the subject predicting the personality traits had never met the subjects who filled out their descriptions.

In addition to personality traits, humans are also able to predict personal values when learning about musical preference.

When judging “terminal values,” said the study, people could accurately predict who wanted a comfortable life, who wanted a world at peace, an exciting life, national security, and were very accurate at predicting imagination and social recognition.

Rentfrow and Gosling believe that this is a major contributor to the ways in which humans perceive the outside world.

“[The study] showed that individuals’ music preferences convey consistent and accurate messages about their personalities,” they wrote.  “Additionally, the results suggest that specific attributes of individuals’ music preferences and music-genre stereotypes differentially influenced observers’ impressions of targets’ traits, values, and affect. Together, these findings highlight some of the processes that may guide interpersonal perception in daily life.”

The study also noted that musical preference is much better at predicting some personality traits than other forms of observation, such as appearance, body language, and behaviour.

“These findings suggest that music preferences carry unique information about personality that is not readily available from more observable cues,” the report said.

A common bond

Why is this? Rentfrow and Gosling concluded that humans can learn about each other by learning about their musical preferences, but the study never claimed why humans with similar personalities gravitate towards similar types of music.

An additional study, “The Structure and Personality Correlates of Music Preference,” has concluded that music is the top leisure activity of people across the world, and found that people “listen to music approximately 14 per cent of their entire waking lives … twice as much as the time spent conversing with other individuals.”

With people spending large amounts of their time listening to music, musical preference could be a manifestation of unconscious personality characteristics.

“Sensation seeking appears to be positively related to a preference for rock, for example,” the study claimed. “In addition, Extroversion and Psychoticism have been shown to predict preferences for music with exaggerated bass, such as rap and dance music.”

In addition to being a reflection of unconscious desires and thoughts, musical preference is also used to create a social identity. The study claimed people “use music as a ‘badge’ to communicate their values, attitudes, and self-views.”

Even the least observant person among us can see the multitude of clicks revolving around musical preferences. Hostility between factions is also a common theme.

Hostility between social groups is nothing new in psychology. If humans are subconsciously proclaiming their values and personality traits to others through musical preference, and different musical preference means different values, hostility can be a very common outcome.

Whether it results in actual arguments, or loss of respect, people can make harsh judgments about one another based on what music they listen to.

The study also concludes that music has a two-way effect on personality, both reinforcing how one sees himself or herself, and being used to attempt to show others the personality they want to convey.

“Music preferences also appear to be shaped by self-views,” the study claimed. “The social environments that individuals select serve to reinforce their self-views and our findings suggest that people may select music for similar reasons. That is, individuals might select styles of music that reinforce their self-views; for example, individuals may listen to esoteric music to reinforce a self-view of being sophisticated. Our findings provide evidence consistent with this idea.

“Individuals might select styles of music that allow them to send a message to others about who they are or how they like to be seen; for instance, individuals who listen to heavy metal music at a loud volume with their car windows rolled down may be trying to convey a tough`image to others.”

The study’s authors also point out that music is also likely used in regulating our emotions. People use songs to amplify emotions they like, and counter act the ones they don’t. Individuals also use music to match their emotional state.

“When a person is feeling cheerful, she may listen to jazz music that is lively, but when she is feeling sad she may choose the blues,” the study said.

This outcome won’t come as a surprise anyone. The connection between emotions and music is a classic one. But why would someone who is sad play a blues song that would seem to increase that emotion?

One speculation in the conclusions of “The Structure and Personality Correlates of Music Preference” suggests is “people choose a tempo of music that is consistent with the heart rate that characterizes their current or desired mood.” Meaning when someone is depressed, and their heart rate is low, they chose a song that would have a low tempo to match.

Dancing and movement

Another question that comes to mind revolves around dancing – more specifically, why humans feel the compulsion to move when they hear a pleasing song.

Besides all of the social and psychological implications, it is just plain pleasing for humans to listen to music. As the study conducted at the University of Montreal pointed out, listening to pleasing music can activate the same reward areas of the brain that are stimulated when a person uses recreational drugs.

The chemical involved, called a neurotransmitter, is dopamine. The name dopamine is familiar to most people. It helps to reward us for behaviour that our brains perceive to be vital to survival and replication – sex, physical activity, a good meal. In other words, things that make us happy.

Although music itself is not vital to human survival, a recent study from McGill University points out that we only need to perceive music as a rewarding activity, and then our brains respond as if we were doing something that increased our chances of survival and replication.

Simply put, you only need to think a piece of music is “beautiful” and your brain will respond with a dopamine reward. This, in turn, compounds the effect, making it more pleasurable than it otherwise would have, and more likely that you’ll continue the behaviour. Hence, music can become addictive.

There are a few ways in which movements tie into the equation. First is that many of the reward pathways that are activated when we listen to music are also connected to the movement areas of the brain. This is way some scientists believe that humans feel and uncontrollable urge to move in some way, however little, when listening to a song that they love. The pleasure centres in the brain are being overloaded with dopamine, and the user can’t help but tap their feet, hand, or move their head.

On the other side of the coin, humans receive a certain amount of pleasure from movement in general. This has obvious survival benefit, as a person who is more physically fit is more likely to survive. This is why individuals get “runner’s high” or a feeling of euphoria after a hard workout. The brain rewards the behaviour to ensure that the trend continues.

Some scientists speculate that this could lead to some individuals to try and maximize their pleasure “intake.” By moving and listening to music at the same time, the brain rewards the individual for both activities, meaning he or she gets significantly more dopamine than they would have by only doing one just one of them.

Others believe moving to the sound of music helps to refine our timing. By listening to a song and dancing to a beat, we are essentially predicting what sound will come next and moving accordingly.

Predicting future events and reacting to them has natural survival value. The humans of the past who where better at this skill would be more adept at avoiding predators and enemies. Therefore, humans with more accurately co-ordinated movement would be more likely to pass on their genes.

This also explains why people with poor dancing skills are sometimes viewed negatively by others. Animals with poor timing and co-ordination are less likely to survive and pass on their genes. If people see that you are poorly co-ordinated, it could lead to the unconscious inference that you are “failing” a survival skill. This would also vindicate why some people outright refuse to dance if they think they are bad at it.

Dancing is also a form of communication, which is why people often dance in groups and not alone. Humans can try to perpetuate an image while dancing. Just like “The Structure and Personality Correlates of Music Preference”  study claimed that people can use musical preference as a “badge”, people will often attempt to portray a state of mind through dance or movement.

People may dance to display agreement with a song being played, others may dance silly to convey not giving a fuck or to poke fun at the song. Individuals will often dance facing each other to watch how the other moves, and mimic their movements – another form of agreement.

This also explains why, much like talking out loud, being caught dancing alone can be an embarrassing moment, as the individual can be perceived as communicating with no one.

Why people love music

You may have noticed, despite all of the physiological effects covered so far, the fundamental question of why humans like music in the first place has not been answered.

Science has done a remarkable job of discovering how and why music permeates human culture, but the answers as to why music, and not some other medium, are still unclear.

Unfortunately, this question is still left unanswered. As hard as it may be to believe, musical psychology is still a rather young field – surprising considering how predominate music is in humanity. The underlying reasons behind our love of music are hazy at best.

Some speculate that humans naturally prefer things in order, rather than disorder, and music provides a structured system that we find pleasing.

Others claim that people are naturally attracted to harmonic sounds. Think of someone speaking with long, pauses, in between, their, words. This disruption in the flow of sound is annoying for many people to listen to, and thus, we naturally gravitate towards sounds that are more harmonious and rhythmic.

Another theory claims that since people naturally gauge an individual’s tone of voice, for practices such as mating and interpreting emotional states, that we have accidentally applied that same system to musical sounds – a malfunction in the system if you will.

Although the reasons behind the biggest “why” is still unknown, it is clear that music is one of the most important phenomenon in human life. It is everywhere, in everyone’s mind. It is a cog in the machine of humanity.

After all, music makes the world go round.

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