Music, Happiness, and the Brain

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Biology 202

2006 First Web Paper

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Music, Happiness, and the Brain

Emily Lewis

Have you ever come home after a long, hard day and turned on music to
de-stress? Do you associate music with different types of emotions (i.e. "I listen
to Green Day when I'm angry.")? Do you find it impossible to sit still while
listening to a certain type of music? Have you ever wondered why this happens?
So have I.

Ask most people to listen to music in a fast tempo and they will probably
say that it makes them feel happier, recall happy memories, and/or make them
want to dance. Give the same people slow music in a major key, and they will
say, most likely, that it makes them relax, that such music is good for meditation.
On the same line, slow music in a minor key makes people feel sad and possibly
recall sad memories. If most people are asked to listen to dissonant music in a
fast tempo, their most likely response will be fear.(1) To a certain degree,
dissonance is dependent on culture, but there is a theory that dissonance sounds
abrasive to listeners of any culture. Studies have demonstrated that babies as
young as four months old react negatively to dissonant music. (2)


For any piece of music, the way it is experienced by each listener is often
entirely different. One could hear Saint-Saens The Dying Swan (a slow piece for
solo cello) and literally picture the swan and it expires, while another could be
picturing the time she danced to the piece for a ballet class or the time she
played it for an audience. Either way, this piece is very moving and paints a
graphic picture for the listener. However, for the listener picturing the poor swan,
the reaction and memory associations would be very different than for the dancer
or the cellist.

It is a fact, as much as facts can exist, that the right kind music releases
endorphins. This causes relief of pain, and if there is no pain, happiness,
pleasure. (3) It has also been shown that music can induce sleep by convincing the
brain to release melatonin. This can be seen visibly in listeners to whom a
relaxing piece of music is being played. For many people, music that has an
intrinsic feeling of pleasure associated with it can cause a listener to become
motivated to do something. (4) These pieces have no other memories attached to
them, but, interestingly, when they are played, the areas of the brain that are
stimulated are those that are also stimulated by food, sex, and drugs. This could
imply that there is a connection between these things and the way that music is
processed by the brain.

What is it that makes music so intensely powerful? We may never really
know. As much as we can quantify the responses the brain produces when we
listen to music, we cannot yet explain why they happen.

1)Exploring the Musical Brain (2001) Scientific American


2)Biology and Music: Enhanced: Music of the Hemispheres


3)"Music on the Brain" (2000)

4)""Intensely
pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions
implicated with reward and emotion." (2001)"

5) Jourdain, Robert. Music, The Brain, And Ecstasy : How Music Captures Our Imagination. Harper Paperbacks, 1998.


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