Music Happy

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Brian Resnick is Science and Health Editor and co-founder of the Unexplainable podcast about unanswered questions in science. Brian was previously a reporter for the National Journal.

Music Happy

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From an evolutionary point of view, it makes no sense that music should evoke emotions in us. Why were our ancestors interested in music? Despite many claims to the contrary, it is not essential for survival.

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“C or C# is very rarely a matter of life and death,” says Jean-Julien Aucouturier, neuroscientist in music and emotion at the Institut Français in Paris. “Beethoven or Lady Gaga – whether they like it or not – it’s not something to yell at or run away from.”

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Scientists have been asking this question for decades: why does something as abstract as music evoke such enduring emotions?

It is very likely that our love of music was purely accidental. We originally developed emotions to help us navigate dangerous worlds (fear) and social situations (joy). And somehow the sounds and beats of a musical composition activate similar areas of the brain.

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“It might have evolved in extraordinary ways, but once it did, it became really important,” says Robert Zatorre, a neuroscientist at McGill University.

Studies have shown that when we listen to music, our brain releases dopamine, which in turn makes us happy. In a study published in

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The researchers, led by Zatorre, found that the release of dopamine is strongest when a piece of music reaches an emotional peak, giving the listener a “freeze” — a goose bumps feeling of excitement and fear.

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That may explain why we love music. But that doesn’t explain why this preference developed in the first place. Normally, our brain releases dopamine during behaviors that are essential for survival (sex or eating). That makes sense – it’s an adaptation that encourages us to exhibit more of these behaviors. But music is not indispensable either.

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One possibility, he notes, is that it’s a function of our love of pattern. We probably evolved to recognize patterns because it’s an essential skill for survival. Does the rustling of the trees mean a dangerous animal is attacking? Does the smell of smoke mean I should run away because a fire could be coming my way?

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Music is a pattern. As we listen, we constantly anticipate what melodies, harmonies, and rhythms might follow. “So when I hear a chord progression — one chord, four chords, and five chords — I probably know the next chord is going to be a different chord because it’s a prediction,” says Zatorre. “Based on my past experience.”

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That’s why we usually don’t like styles of music we don’t know. If we don’t know a style of music, we have no basis for predicting its patterns. (Zatorre mentions jazz as a style of music that many strangers have trouble with). When we can’t predict musical patterns, we get bored. Through our culture we learn what sounds make music. The rest is random noise.

These explanations may describe why we find joy in music, but they don’t explain the full range of emotions that music evokes.

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When we listen to music, its rhythm hits us in a process called rapture. When the music is fast, our heart rates and breathing patterns accelerate to match the beat.

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This excitement can be interpreted by our brain as excitement. Research has shown that the more enjoyable the music sounds, the higher the engagement.

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Another hypothesis is that music taps into regions of the brain that are primed for language — which mediate all of our emotions.

“It makes sense that our brains are very good at converting emotions into language,” says Aucouturier of the French Institute of Science. It’s important to understand that the people around us are happy, sad, angry, or scared. Much of this information is contained in the sound of a person’s speech. Higher grades are happier. The longer tones scare me.

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Music, then, can be an exaggerated version of language. Just as higher and faster notes indicate excitement, so does higher and faster selection of music.

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“My voice is the happiest, a piano, violin or trumpet can make my voice 100 times happier,” says Aucouturier, because these instruments can produce a much wider range of sounds than the human voice.

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And since we tend to mirror the emotions we hear in others, if the music mimics happy speech, the listener will be happy too.

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Many studies have looked at adults’ emotional responses to music. However, research involving infants tends to be biased and eclectic, perhaps reflecting the difficulty in asking them what they like. Researchers know that babies hear and remember music while they are still in the womb. And an interesting study found that newborns prefer Bach to Aerosmith.

Most systematic work has found that infants clearly prefer consonance over dissonance and remember the tempo and timbre of previously heard music. Babies prefer a woman’s voice, but they love it even more when you adopt the qualities of “mother” (that energetic singing voice we all naturally adopt when talking to babies). But her emotional responses to music are a little more mysterious. What kind of music makes them calm and content? And what makes you happy?

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I’m an expert on baby laughter and was intrigued when the C&G Baby Club approached me and music psychologist Lauren Stewart to “write a song scientifically proven to make babies happy” to give to parents. We thought it would be an interesting challenge. However, our first condition was that the word “prove” should not be used. Second, they allowed us real science. They readily agreed.

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The first step was to find out what was known about sounds and music that can make babies happy. We had some experiences. In my previous work on the Baby Laughter Project, I asked parents about nursery rhymes and silly noises that appeal to babies. Lauren’s previous research was on “catchy tunes,” songs that get stuck in your head. We found surprisingly little research on infant musical preferences. This was encouraging as it meant that this was a scientifically valuable project.

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The next step was finding the right composer: Grammy Award winner Imogen Heap. Imogen is an accomplished musician who happens to have an 18-month-old daughter. He was also enthusiastic about the challenges of the project. Few musicians have made it their mission to write real music to delight babies while appealing to parents. Musician Michael Janisch recorded an entire Jazz for Babies album, but it was very slow and designed to calm babies. Most music written specifically for babies honestly sounds crazy.

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We met with Heap and gave him recommendations based on our findings from previous research. The song should be in a major key, with simple and repetitive main melodies using musical devices such as drum rolls, key changes and rising pitches to allow for anticipation and surprise. Since babies’ pulses are much faster than ours, the music should be much faster than you might expect. Finally, it should have an energetic female voice, ideally recorded in the presence of a baby.

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Luckily, Heap had his daughter Scout to help him compose. Heap made four tunes for us to test in the lab, two fast and two slow. He created a version with and without simple sung text. After that, about 26 6- and 12-month-old babies, their mothers and some fathers came to our laboratory to express their opinions. Surprisingly, the majority of parents and 20 out of 26 babies seemed to have a clear preference for a particular tune. Conforms to our forecasts

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