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We all know that music tugs at our heartstrings. But the question of why music gives us the feels is a trickier one, and it’s something psychologists have been investigating for a long time.

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Sources:
https://www.nature.com/articles/nrn3666
http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(17)31675-5
https://homepage.univie.ac.at/tecumseh.fitch/2010/08/05/musical-protolanguage-darwins-theory-of-language-evolution-revisited/
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-does-music-make-us-fe/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25725908
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3741536/
https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-1-4419-6114-3_5
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Image sources:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adele_-_Live_2009_(4).jpg
[♪ INTRO].

We all sort of know that music tugs at our heartstrings. Think of the excitement you feel at a rock concert or the lump you get in your throat when the first dance starts at your friends’ wedding.

Think of that holiday music nostalgia [♪ SINGING] The First Noel or how nice it is to dance around your kitchen to your favorite Spotify playlist. And like, there’s definitely a reason that the soundtrack for a horror film is nothing like the one for a romcom. But the question of why music gives us the feels is a trickier one, and it’s something psychologists have been investigating for a long time.

Turns out, this research might be so difficult because there are a whole bunch of explanations. First, it’s worth pointing out that music really is universal. whether you're hearing it through your ears or feeling something like rhythm through vibrations. It’s been found to be part of every known human culture, and even as infants, we react to and enjoy it.

Different cultures also seem to use similar types of music for similar things. This kind of suggests that music has an evolutionary purpose, which is something that scientists as far back as Darwin have proposed. They’ve suggested it could have been a kind of language before we had words, or an auditory way to convey what’s usually expressed by movement.

But even if there’s a good reason for why humans have embraced music, it’s a little more complicated to explain exactly how it influences our emotions. It’s so complicated that, for a while, some researchers actually thought that it didn’t. They argued that the feels were just the result of tension being released as our expectations were met and violated by what happened in a song.

If you’ve ever gone “uhhhhh” at a dissonant and arrhythmic piece of modern classical music, you probably know that expectations do matter when it comes to listening to music. But many researchers now argue that, while expectations might be one way songs influence us, you really /are/ feeling emotions when an angry ballad brings you to tears. There’s a lot of evidence that, when you listen to a piece of music, something is going on in your body and brain… and that’s kind of hard to ignore.

For example, some studies have found differences in participants’ heart rates and blood pressures when listening to happy, uptempo, tonal music versus sadder, slower, more dissonant stuff. Admittedly, it’s hard to say whether the music changed how positive people actually felt or just got them more riled up. But another study got around that a bit by looking at how music affected subjects’ interpretation of facial expressions.

They found that happy music made happy, neutral, and sad faces seem happier, while sad music made them seem sadder. That seemed to suggest the music was making them feel things and influencing their perception of emotions. And a 2014 research review published in Nature found that many of the brain regions we associate with emotion -- like the nucleus accumbens, amygdala, and hippocampus -- are involved when we listen to songs.

So there’s definitely some emotion-related stuff going on in your brain when you plug in your headphones. But why and how those things happen is a much harder question to answer. For one, the research hasn’t been totally consistent.

Different studies have asked slightly different questions when they’ve investigated music and emotion -- like “What do you feel when you hear this?” versus “What do you hear in the music?” If you aren’t paying close attention to what the researchers asked their participants, it can make the results of their studies seem confusing or even contradictory. And then there are all the potential mechanisms for how music gives us emotions. In 2008, in a paper from Behavioral and Brain Sciences, researchers argued that there may be as many as six, including things like reflexes in the brain stem, but also more cognitive things like musical expectancy.

Like, even though the emotions are real, they could still be caused by expectations, like older researchers thought. Another possible mechanism is that the feelings you get from music happen via a process called emotional contagion, where you mirror the emotion that you hear happening in the piece. But how this happens in the brain is still unknown.

And then there’s the idea that your memories can have something to do with how songs make you feel. Research has shown that melodies can evoke strong autobiographical memories, meaning that a song really can take you back to when and where and what was happening when you listened to it. So it’s totally possible that by bringing up a memory, a song could invoke the emotions associated with it, rather than one that’s built into the song itself.

It’s why that cute love song you and your ex used to like might make you feel angry or sad instead of all warm and fuzzy inside. So yeah. There are a lot of possibilities.

In that 2008 paper, the researchers argued that that might be part of the reason why we don’t have things figured out yet. Having so many possibilites—and failing to distinguish when different ones are responsible in different situations—could be muddying our overall understanding. And of course, the idea of liking music is a whole separate issue… because you totally can get pleasure out of a really sad song.

It’s basically Adele’s whole business model. So we don’t totally know how we get from music to feels, but we do definitely know that music makes us feel things. There are a lot more questions to answer, but they’re questions a lot of people care about and are looking into.

After all, music is a huge part of most of our lives, and might have also played a role in. Our evolutionary history. So next time you’re sobbing along to the credits of Harry Potter and the Goblet of.

Fire or having a spiritual experience at a Beyonce concert…. Well, know that you’re not alone. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych!

If you’d like to learn even more about how how music affects us, you can watch our episode over on the main SciShow channel about why music can sometimes give you the chills. [♪ OUTRO].