Why Do We Get Emotional When We Listen To Music?
by JR Thorpe
Photo taken in Bangkok, Thailand
Anuruk Charoenamornrat / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

Any human of a music-listening persuasion will know the tie between music and emotions: the rush of happiness at a good gig, the delight of singing angrily along to a ferocious song after being dumped. As with many widespread universal experiences, this one has attracted a huge amount of scientific attention, because there's a question at the heart of it: why? Why does the noise produced by instruments and voices create emotions in us, how does it do it, and are the emotions that we feel from music of a specific kind or type?

Humans have been listening to music for an incredibly long time; it's been proposed that it was actually a kind of protolanguage before we developed words to communicate. Researchers in 2013 found that people listen to music for 126 different reasons, grouped into roughly three: mood analysis and regulation, self-awareness, and social relatedness. Emotion has a high significance when it comes to our music choices and habits, but experts continue to disagree on some of the finer points of the relationship between a great tune and the tears rolling down our cheeks.

Let's examine what's really going on when it seems as if a song touches your heart.

Do We Experience "Real" Emotions In Response To Music?

Do we actually feel emotion in response to music? It's an intriguing question that would seem to have a simple answer; but some theorists don't think so. Instead, there's an argument that controversially suggests we aren't experiencing traditional emotions in response to music at all. What we're feeling, the theory suggests, is a kind of tension and relaxation in turns, based on whether or not our expectations of what a piece of music will do next are met. We feel happy, according to this idea, when the next note or movement fulfills what we think might happen, while we get frustrated or feel on edge when it doesn't.

However, there are a lot of ways to rebut this, or at least to argue that it's part but not all of how our emotional responses to music seem to work. There's a lot of physical evidence that we seem to experience emotion while we listen to music, from heart rate increases in response to tense or fast music to reports of emotional response among listeners. And it's not purely straightforward, either; we may "feel" the emotion of a piece of music as sad, but actually experience pleasure while we listen to it, as research in 2013 discovered. Emotion does seem to be involved beyond just tension and expectation, but it's a complicated picture.

How music embedded itself in human emotional response is an open question. It's been suggested, for instance, that we respond with particular emotional vehemence to songs that might recall the "calls" of our pre-language ancestors. "Upwardly rising, staccato sounds tend to put us on edge, while long descending tones seems to have a calming effect," the BBC noted of this theory in 2015. Emotion from music might therefore have an evolutionarily useful aspect. And the composer Joel Douek, writing for Frontiers In Systems Neuroscience, notes that many of the cues used by music-makers to elicit particular emotions or feelings are "primal responses" that appear to cross cultures, suggesting some kind of deep historical memory. Another, suggested by the neurobiologist Mark Changizi, is that music echoes human "expressive movement:" fast tempo seems to be running from something or doing celebratory dancing, for instance. In these contexts, music is something that echoes parts of our shared human history and survival throughout our species' evolution.

How Music Works In The Brain's Emotional Centers

One of the most interesting areas of emotional-music science is the part that delves into the brain, and asks the question: does music set off particular parts of the brain's emotional systems, and do it differently depending on the emotion of the song? The answer appears to be "yes."

Groundbreaking research published in Nature in 2014 found that there are distinct correlates between music and different areas of the brain, many of which are intimately tied to emotional processing. And, interestingly, tension and expectation play a role. The study found that music that creates pleasurable emotions lights up the mesolimbic pathway, the reward bit of the brain that gives us happy feelings. But that wasn't all; music also creates responses from the amygdala (which modulates emotional networks) and hippocampus (which centers on emotions around attachment). And part of the pleasure was definitely centered on tension and its release, but not all of it.

We also respond strong to dissonance and whether or not we find it pleasant, according to a study that looked at cerebral blood flow. When played dissonant music, subjects' brains surged blood to parts of the paralimbic system associated with various kinds of emotions. But the brain's response to music isn't just embedded in the here and now; it's also acutely attuned to the past.

It appears that music has a unique power to evoke emotional memory. Memories formed around music can have strong emotional centers, and those involving emotions can be drawn out by using music that was either explicitly part of the memory, or is tangentially related to it. And this relates to something else odd about music and emotion: it grows with familiarity. Our emotional response to a piece of music, according to a 2011 study, is much more intense if we're familiar with it and carry the memory of our previous emotional reactions. Music may well soothe the savage beast, but it also appears to be intricately tied to the ways in which we preserve emotional memory.

How The Psychology Of Music & Emotions Works

How do we "read" a song as one kind of emotion or another? It's a question that music theorists have spend a lot of time debating. There are structural aspects to music, they believe, that read in different ways to our emotional understanding, whether from learned evolutionary responses or something else.

The parts of music that "talk" emotion run the gamut, and are referred to as musical codes. In The Aesthetic Mind, theorists William Forde Thompson and Lena Quinto famously outlined a vast bunch of codes, all talking to us on an emotional level. Structurally, there's dissonance, loudness, how far or close they are from the tonal center, and how much they keep to their structure. Tempo is another: when we hear slow-tempo music we tend to think it's serene, calm or pensive, while fast-tempo music is joyful or restless. Pitch also contributes, and that's before we get into how these different aspects change and shift, reflecting shifts in how we "read" them. (A fast song that slows, for instance, means a change in mood.) There's an awful lot to music beyond just the lyrics.

It's one thing to read an emotion in a song, though. It's quite another to actually feel it. And there are various theories about how that might work. One, most prominently argued by the thinker Stephen Davies, is the idea of "emotional contagion," where we "mirror" what we think we get from music rather in the same way that we mirror emotions in other humans. It's a theory founded on the fact that our brains contain mirror neurons, neurons that react in exactly the same way to our performing an action and seeing somebody else do it. Mirror neurons have explained a lot of our mimicking behavior and the way in which we make others comfortable by unconsciously mirroring them, and the emotional contagion theory takes it a step further: we feel the emotions from sad music because they're contagious.

The idea's also bolstered by the fact that there's an intriguing gap between sensing an emotion in a piece of music and actually feeling it for yourself, and that the gap seems to narrow the more empathetic you are. A study in 2012 found that more empathetic people reacted more strongly to musical pieces, even if everybody read them the same way. Davies pointed out the mirroring of the sadness in a piece of music is in fact pretty unique:

"The music is the perceptual object and cause of the listener's echoing sadness; it is her attentional focus, and her reaction tracks the unfolding of the music's expressiveness. However, the listener does not believe that there is anything unfortunate or regrettable about the music (or anything else) and she is not sad about or for the music. In other words, her response lacks the usual emotion-relevant beliefs and does not take the music as its intentional object. Despite this, the mirroring response is emotion-like rather than mood-like or irrational."

In other words, we don't feel sad for sad music necessarily; we feel sad because it is communicating sadness to us, using various codes.

So next time you feel yourself coming over all angsty because a song by Adele comes over the radio, be assured that your brain is doing a lot of complex work to make sure that you're swept away by emotion on the bus ride home.