“Without music, life would be a mistake,” wrote the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Albert Einstein, who was an accomplished violinist, said that nothing gave him as much pleasure as music, and that this would have been his occupation had he not pursued science. Today neuroscientists, musicologists, psychologists and anthropologists continue to ponder why humans enjoy music so much. The discovery of 40,000-year-ago bone flutes in a cave in Germany, perhaps the oldest musical instruments on record, suggests that music has accompanied Homo sapiens since ancient times. But what is its function?
The question has puzzled experts for centuries and there is still no conclusive answer. In the 5th century BC, the school of Pythagoras suggested that music governed the harmony of the stars, whereas current scientific research—from an evolutionary and biological perspective—considers that music serves rather to govern the harmony between human beings.
One of the purposes for music is social cohesion says Jeremy Montagu, a musician and professor at Oxford University. In an essay published in the journal Frontiers in Sociology, Montagu argues that music is so primitive that it predates language. He maintains that a mother’s humming to soothe her baby is music and that this likely happened before humans could speak.
According to Montagu, the bond that music establishes between mother and child is also present in a group of workers or in the ancestral men who danced and sang before a hunt or a battle. “In causing such bonding, [music] created not only the family, but society itself,” he writes. During the lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, nothing helped connect people and break the sense of isolation as much as music, sung or played from balconies or through online videos.
The hypothesis that music played an essential role in the formation and survival of groups and in conflict mitigation is one of the most widely accepted. Mark Tramo of the Institute for Music & Brain Science at Harvard University defines it as a factor of social cohesion. “Men needed to organise to hunt and defend themselves. It paved the way for us to communicate with each other and to share emotions,” he explains. The emotional factor is essential; Montagu defines music as “sound that conveys emotion”.
The ability to communicate emotion is precisely what made music persist after the development of language. A study by psychologists at the University of London and the Austrian Academy of Sciences showed, for example, that even when listening to a short excerpt of a piece of music, an individual is more likely to perceive sadness or happiness in the face of another person, even if the latter maintains a neutral facial expression.
In its task of forging bonds between people, music also reveals one’s personality, according to a study by social psychology experts at the universities of Cambridge and Texas. The participants were asked to judge each other’s personality based solely on their list of ten favourite songs. Psychologists noted that the participants correctly identified the personality traits of their study partners and concluded that musical taste is a reliable source of information about an individual. A study led by Adrian North of Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University surveyed more than 36,000 people in over 60 countries to link musical preferences with personality traits. The results were curious; for example, classical and heavy metal music fans differ in age, but overlap quite closely in personality traits. According to North, they share a “love of the grandiose”. “They’re quite delicate things,” says the researcher. “Lots of heavy metal fans will tell you that they also like Wagner, because it’s big, loud and brash.”
Promotes happiness and creativity
Given music’s emotional capacity, it makes sense that we listen to music that makes us feel good. A study conducted by the Chemnitz University of Technology (Germany), which surveyed more than 800 people on the reasons that motivate them to listen to music, found that the main reasons are related to the regulation of arousal and mood and to achieve self-awareness, even more than social cohesion or communication. Studies have shown that about two-thirds of the population experience what is known as frisson, a pleasurable chill when listening to music that gives us goose bumps; some researchers have even dubbed it a “skin orgasm”. Researchers at Eastern Washington University showed that people more prone to this effect exhibit a personality trait called openness to experience, and that cognitive factors such as imagination or intellectual curiosity weigh even more heavily in this experience than purely emotional ones.
At a deeper level, scientists are exploring the brain mechanisms of musical experience. Research published in Nature and led by Daniel Levitin, neuroscientist and author of the book This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, indicates that music acts on the brain in a similar way to drugs, sex or food. Songs activate the frontal lobe, produce dopamine and act on the cerebellum, which is able to synchronise itself to the rhythm of the music, leading to pleasure. Both playing and listening to music stimulate the production of oxytocin, popularly known as the love hormone. Music “is like a toy for the brain,” says Levitin.
And that “toy” also stimulates creativity. While many people welcome absolute silence during tasks that require concentration, at least one study has found that a moderate level of ambient sound is more conducive to creativity than a lower level of noise, especially in the most creative people. Explanations have been provided by a phenomenon called stochastic resonance, whereby not only humans but also certain animals improve some of their functions under sensory stimulation.
In children’s brains, musical activity increases cognitive and motor skills. A team of neurologists at Harvard University found that children who have three years or more of training with musical instruments have better motor coordination and auditory discrimination skills, learn vocabulary more easily and have better non-verbal reasoning skills, which implies better understanding and analysis of visual information, such as identifying relationships, similarities and differences between shapes and patterns. Continued musical practice throughout the later years of schooling is associated with better grades in mathematics, science and language.
Music is therapeutic
Of all the functions of music, perhaps the most mysterious is its possible therapeutic use. The British neurologist Oliver Sacks reported in his books cases of patients with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease whose symptoms improved when they listened to songs. Other research shows that stroke patients who listen to music of their own choice not only improve their mood, but also their visual attention and ability to do other tasks. Neurological music therapy is now an active field of research that is attracting increasing interest.
In his book Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination, composer and pianist Robert Jourdain writes that music “relaxes brain flow” while “stimulating and coordinating brain activities”. For him, this “magic” happens to all people. “Music lifts us from our frozen mental habits and makes our minds move in ways ordinarily cannot,” he states. Or in more direct words, as reggae genius Bob Marley sang in Trenchtown Rock, “one good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”