The Emotional Effects of Music in Evolutionary Terms

Music is a collection of sound patterns (rhythms, tones, dynamics, and instrumentation specifics) custom-mixed to induce certain emotional states. The changes within the patterns challenge our intellectual, mathematical, and language capacities while the sounds simultaneously stimulate our emotions.

Humans have a strong physiological response to musical sound patterns, and relate the sound patterns to motion. I believe this to be because, in the natural world, that which moves will disturb the media within which it moves (for humans, that media being Earth’s atmosphere), and create a potentially audible sound to an observer, as the disturbance of the media will produce a resonating frequency that propagates through it. Furthermore, rhythmic sound indicates rhythmic motion.

Likewise, musical compositions are made to induce certain moods, and we tend toward a physical state which accommodates said mood. For example, a mosh pit at a metal concert. That specific style of music induces the emotion of anger, motivated toward aggression. That emotional state translates directly to an equivalent physical response, that is aggressive movements.

How does music do this? Well, human brains respond certain ways to certain sounds, designed by millions of years of evolution in forest and grassland environments. To an early human, a deep resonating bass sound may indicate a thunderstorm, the growl of a predator, a large animal grunting or walking, or even the deeper voice of a larger human. This sound, in early humans as well as modern humans induces a feeling of aggression, likely increasing cortisol levels in the blood, potentially even inducing an adrenaline response. Further, that effect is multiplied exponentially when humans share such an experience in large groups (refer back to the mosh pit example).

Sounds that are soft, high pitch, and gentle may indicate the sounds that would come from a happy child or infant. Such sounds induce feelings of deep empathy and joy. Certain sounds may be relaxing. Others may be depressing, or nostalgic. Whatever emotional state is induced, an equivalent physiological response arises.

Music also prompts the imagination of images and scenarios, likely due to the induction of the emotions which surround such a scenario, whether or not that scenario was experienced before by the individual.

Our emotional , physical, and imaginative responses to music are very primal, and intrinsic to human nature. It may be that our brains are hypersensitive to the sounds of our environment and what those sounds may indicate. Other primate species have not been shown to withhold the same capacity for musically-induced physiological responses as we do. Humans also demonstrate the unique capability to produce music, which is awesome. We are able to recognize and easily follow rudimentary patterns. I will have to think more on this topic.

Note: I personally have a fair amount of experience in music and musical composition (see my music page, and feel an intuitive emotional response arise within myself when performing, composing, or listening to music. With training to recognize what one “feels” when hearing particular sounds, this response can be “read” by the person experiencing it, and effectively described in emotional terms, even if not outwardly communicated.

Here’s a beautiful rainy day jazz piece for you:

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