Why music makes us feel

When we listen to music, we can experience many levels of engagement – from very intense emotions to no identifiable emotions at all. Researchers have looked very closely at this phenomenon to understand if it is certain characteristics of music that elicit an emotional response, if it is a totally individual experience, or if it a bit of both.

This study, conducted at the University of Southern California Brain & Creativity Institute, used heart rate and skin response (sweat gland activity) to try and understand the nature of the music listening experience better.

They found several very interesting things. One was that the human body reaction (measured by heart rate and skin response) is higher when something new happens. This means that every time there was a new dynamic, rhythm and timbre, or the introduction of new instruments, the human body sat up and listened a bit more. This attraction to contrast makes complete sense as the human brain is wired to identify changes in anything. Our brains find changes in the “patterns” of whatever we are seeing, listening to or experiencing, interesting. This interest then quickly takes on a meaning, for example, something has changed, and I need to be on alert, or something has changed, and I will keep paying attention rather than drifting off in my mind.

This is an interesting finding when it comes to learning music, which is a process of both learning patterns and learning to spot when the pattern changes. The question is, do our brains enjoy contrast when we are learning how to play a musical instrument as much as when we are listening to music? It is possible that listening to music may be a less cognitively taxing experience. Therefore we may engage more with the contrasts, whereas learning a musical instrument is more cognitively taxing and we may not appreciate as high a level of contrast.

Our BBB Posters are designed to help your students understand their brains on music!

One thing to take away from this research is our bodies seem to be stimulated by contrasts in music. So when you need a bit of lift, seek out music that will stimulate your heart, body and mind.

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