Why We Need Music
Why do we need music? How does its structure determine our emotions?
Although it may seem like a random thing, very often when we decide to listen to music we do it with a specific purpose. We have specific needs that we want to meet precisely through listening.—listening to certain music at a specific time.
Why do we listen to music?
The functions to which listening to music performs are basically three:
- “content” function: it is expressed when we search for pieces that we already know, whose listening provokes an emotional regulation that occurs recalling experiences and experiences already tried previously;
- “reminiscent” function: stimulates memories by associating them to listening;
- “evasive” function: the most known and certainly the most recognized, allows us to temporarily move away from reality and favors those that we could call the “daydreams”.
Music is most of all emotion
But one of the main functions of music is also to arouse emotions, that is, automatic physiological and behavioral changes, independent of the will and consciousness of those who experience them. Like when we break out laughing or crying and we can’t stop.
The strongest emotions are called primary, while the secondary ones originate from primary and arise from social interaction. Primary emotions are innate and universal, common to all humanity regardless of individual culture and experience and consist of:
In addition to being feelings that arise independently, without our direct control, emotions can be “used” to raise others and thus induce a specific reaction. A kind of reciprocity: for example, expressing sadness, gives rise to compassion and possible actions of nurturing towards us; expressing anger arouses attention and corrective actions of a certain behavior or situation that we want to change; to show fear arouses the desire to offer protection, while joy arouses pleasure, reassures and strengthens the social bond.
Everything depends on two elements: rhythm and notes
We’re about to start listening to a song, let’s imagine it’s a random song we don’t know. The first notes start and in our brain the amygdala is activated, the sentinel of our emotions, that with the limbic system produces a reaction to the auditory stimulus that has reached us. At this point our brain catalogues the music we listen to based on two main elements: rhythm and notes. These elements are able to determine the type of emotion that will be transmitted to us.
The rhythm determines the speed of the music, is measured in beats per minute exactly like the pulsations of our heart. Considering that our pulsations, under normal conditions, can vary between 60 and 80 beats per minute (generally we are between 70-72), it follows that a time with a rhythm less than 60 beats will have a relaxing effect, over 80 beats will instead be activating.
At the extremes, we could find a “saddening” effect for rhythms lower than 30 beats per minute, while over 110 we will have a fast rhythm that will also involve the movement of the body (such as can happen with dance music). A fast time varies considerably the size of the arousal, that is the response of the nervous system to a stimulus, which gives rise to excitation and to an increase of the attentive-cognitive system.
As for the role played by the notes, without going into an analysis of the emotional effect produced, which would be complicated for those not involved in the work, we can just consider how some notes played together (chords) or one after the other (melody) are perceived as cheerful or sad in relation to motivations that are partly cultural and partly innate.
To put it simply, it can be said that the notes are more pleasing the more simple the relationship between their frequency, and this would depend on the fact that the sounds that were originally considered harbingers of an impending danger (we think of thunders, landslides, earthquakes, explosions) had random frequencies, complex and messy. Our nervous system would therefore be able to listen to these sounds, generating an unpleasant sensation that warns us against possible danger. On the contrary, the simplest sounds would not trigger alarm bells and would therefore be perceived as more pleasant.
To notice how inside of the same song the variation of the intensity can change our perception and the level of our emotion maybe resulting initially calm, then joyful and finally melancholic. In this context we can also associate the use of chords “in minor” or “in major” that often appear in the same song with the precise intent to change the emotional pathos.
The influence of external factors
In addition to factors intrinsic to the music itself, the emotions that music evokes can also depend on external factors such as:
- conditioning is the most common and results from the fact that music can be associated repeatedly with positive or negative events;
- emotional contagion is that passage through which the listener perceives the emotions that the performer wants to transmit and he mimes them internally through the “mirror neurons”;
- the visual imagination succeeds in giving birth to emotions making particular images evoked by the music appear to the mind;
- episodic memory comes into play when listening to a song brings back a memory that we connect to a certain emotion, evoking a memory are automatically evoked even the emotions connected to it;
- expectation is related to the emotion induced by the structure of the song at the moment when this denial, delay or confirm what is expected during listening may be the way the song will continue.
As we have seen, the moment we listen to music there are many factors that come into play to explain our motivations and our reactions to listening. And probably, thinking about these things, the next time we decide to listen to a song, we’ll do it in a slightly different way!