We’ve all been there. Hearing a song, riff, or chord progression so gripping it leaves you fidgety, breathless and heading straight to the internet to find out the name of the mastermind behind the song that just gave you goosebumps. Take the intro riff of Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” or Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA.” The songs that stop you dead in your tracks because they just feel so good.
Music plays a monumental role in just about everyone’s lives. Whether it’s simply on in the background as a soundtrack to your day or actively fueling a creative process, we just can’t seem to get enough. Heck, I’ve alternated between The Velvet Underground, Alt-j, Kendrick Lamar and Brahms just writing this intro. Music transcends time and culture and a number of other but nobody can really pinpoint the reasoning behind the surge of emotions experienced when listening to music, and unbeknownst to music lovers all over the world is the scientific explanation behind the appeal of some of their favorite artists.
Scientists have found that music is capable of stimulating more parts of the brain than any other human function. Time and time again, studies have shown that during peak emotional moments of a song, dopamine is released in the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain’s reward system that processes rewarding stimuli (music in this case). It all boils down to a series of tensions and releases; as songs build, the body anticipates the climactic moment of a song until it happens, and we come undone, triggering the release of dopamine which provides that naturally pleasurable feeling.
That’s pretty significant, considering the fact that the feel-good chemical is released as a result of naturally rewarding experiences: eating, sex, and even highly addictive drugs including cocaine and methamphetamines. To lump music into the mix of some of the most biologically appealing habits says a lot about the control it has over us and further stresses the importance of it.
Undoubtedly, the familiarity of songs we already know and love contribute to the anticipation and enjoyment of a favorite part in a song. But what about songs we’re unfamiliar with? Listeners that are exposed to songs they’ve never heard before react normally, if they like the song enough. But occasionally a song too foreign to the listener will ultimately not be favored—they can’t anticipate the structure of the song because it lacks a recognizable pattern or distinct rhythm. Buh-bye, dopamine.
On the contrary, we gravitate towards new music because its rhythm and patterns deviate from what we’re used to hearing. That’s why many tire of pop music so easily; its melodies and chord progressions are predictable and too easily anticipated when we are constantly searching for something new to satisfy our pleasure center.
So, the next time you get the impulse to get up and move, chalk it up to biology. But then again, maybe you’re better off not knowing—just sit back, relax, and enjoy the sounds.