Music to Our Ears - Part 2


Another burning question, why do humans enjoy music? It's mind-boggling that music has such power of us.  Unsurprisingly, for something so variable there is not just one answer.  When this question was proposed to Dr. John Powell, a Visiting Professor of Materials Science at the University of Nottingham he had some interesting points to make. Firstly, he distinguished the differences between sounds of music versus noises. They are simply not the same, your ears register noises as warning signs for danger, and your ears can also magnificently register musical instruments and voices that are "unlikely to be lethal," he writes. He further explains the way the human ear reacts to music: the ear drum consistently pulsates in and out x number of times per second. The fact that our ears respond differently to the ebb and flow of music versus other sounds allow the individuals to hone in on harmonies, melodies, and all other elements of the music. Dr. Powell clarifies the significance of a simple twang on a stringed instrument like a cello or guitar. The pluck or strum gives off frequencies that bounce to us, leaving a pleasant sound. As a species we appreciate melodic notes, and enjoy spots of tension that resolve. These "twangs" allow orchestrations to blossom and combinations of sounds to thrive. When listening to a song it is important for consistency and consecutiveness, which often holds a certain melody or musical phrase that resonates with the listener. This key note is known as "home." Dr. Powell describes well written songs as "conversation." Perhaps this is what makes listening to music an everyday occurrence for most humans; our subconscious wants to hear what the music has to say.

girl with headphones.jpg

Contrary to the ideas just discussed, there is also a natural desire to "keep us guessing." With so many variations of music, Dr. Powell says that in genres such as jazz or classical anticipation builds and builds only to "set up expectations and then either reward or frustrate them." A third component that adds to the pleasure we find in music would be the natural cadence of a song. From drumming, dancing, or short and sweet pop melodies it gives the audience something to hum and remember. 

Like in my first article, Dr. Powell goes on to discuss the significance of Western music. Unlike many traditional music systems, Western music follows sequences that are carefully organized. Indian traditional music for example is vastly different where there may be a steady drum and a soloist soars among an abundance of varying notes. These two musical systems and all those in between are different, yet possess the same hold over humans. According to Dr. Powell science can't distinguish why an individual might prefer one type of genre over another. He also included an interesting analogy that like acquiring a taste for new food it takes people about 10 times of "trying" a new genre of music to actually get enjoyment out of it if originally put off.

To ensure Dr. Powell was accurate, I found several other resources that say virtually the same thing.One in particular from Time magazine written by Michael D. Lemonick brings up an interesting point. We technically don't need music to survive. It doesn't help us physically reproduce, make food, or sleep. So why has it lasted all these years? It has been cultural foundation for the billions of people that have roamed this planet. It is the center of many worlds, religions, and customs.

The most intriguing part of Lemonick's article brings to light the science. Music activates the part of the brain that releases dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical that gets released during the climax of sex and eating. It's most commonly discussed with addictive drugs and taboo behavior, but it is certainly a natural release for humans. Because music triggers the release of this chemical, that is another stack of evidence to add onto our already lengthy pile on why music is truly so enjoyable for humans. Music is tied to our "survival mechanisms" that allow us to recognize patterns and understand emotions (as mentioned earlier).  The main component all these researchers and scientists stressed in their findings was the ultimate foundation of being satisfied. Music gives humans a release, an outlet, and something to hold onto.

To conclude, there is something innately within us, perhaps a biological mechanism, that gives us imagination, aspiration, and satisfaction when listening to music. We have every desire to plug in headphones and "zone out" to our favorite songs.


I found it interesting that you said songs need to follow a certain pattern that people think they should, with sort of a "reward" or else frustration. Being the daughter of a music major and someone who has grown up making up melodies just for fun, I get frustrated when I hear a new song and the melody takes an unexpected twist. Music is very much a language, as certain notes can fit together like certain words. When the melodies don't go the way the human brain thinks they should, it's kind of like someone choosing the wrong word and just sort of making it work anyway. I wonder what is triggered in the brain to make this frustration occur and how the brain can "hear" where it thinks the melody should go next anyway.

This post caught my attention because I wrote a two part post this blog period about why music gets stuck in our heads. Here are the links to it:

From my research, it seems like people like music because our brains are programmed to enjoy patterns. That's seems to be why, songs with catchy choruses that repeat, get stuck in our heads. I found it extremely interesting that you mentioned music activates the part of the brain that releases dopamine, because i hadn't thought of that. What I struggled to find when researching for my own posts was a biological mechanism that caused songs to get stuck in peoples heads.

Thank you, Courtney for your comment! My mom is a music teacher so I can definitely relate to having music in the family. Maybe that's why we are so passionate about the subject? I suggest you check out this youtube video: Why Music Moves Us. It's nice to see someone explain it rather than just read articles about it. The narrator makes you envision yourself with and without music. Kind of inspiring.

Thanks for commenting, Evan! I checked out your posts. Music is a really complex topic, isn't it? There are literally hundreds of ways to go about explaining music and both of us only skimmed the surface. I recommend this video: It's a pretty chill guy sitting down and just explaining "why music makes us feel." He also brought up a good point that I touched upon in one of my blogs that even though music isn't necessarily needed for life, our lives would be pathetic without it.

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