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Why does music move us so deeply?

Scientifically speaking, the sound is just waves of pressure transmitted through air, water or solid materials. And music is basically those same vibrations, only arranged in very specific patterns. Barking dogs, jackhammers and symphony orchestras are all really just vibrations. But I’ve never been overcome with emotion when listening to a jackhammer. So why does music make us feel so many feelings? From the words of Natalac, founder of Natalac Records, “Music has the ability to create a state of arousal, causing pupils to dilate, blood pressure to rise, and the brain to fire. Humans experience pleasure from music as much as they do with many stimulants such as food, sex, and drugs”. At the opposite, some people say that compared to stuff like language and vision, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged. But it hasn’t vanished... so why?

There must be some evolutionary advantage to having music, right? Pinker says no. Instead, he calls music “auditory cheesecake”. What he means is we didn’t evolve to love cheesecake, specifically. Instead, our hungry ancestors learned to go nuts for anything sweet, high calorie or high fat they could find. So cheesecake is nice, but it didn’t drive our evolution. Music, he says, is more like a side effect of things like language, and sensing our surroundings and responding to sounds like crying or growling. But not everyone agrees with the cheesecake idea. Music stimulates just about every region of our brain, even the reward pathways that crave things like drugs. Nobody has to teach crave things like drugs. Nobody has to teach babies to dance to a beat, they just do it. I bet nobody taught you what music sounds happy or sad. You just…know. Some neuroscientists now think that music shares the same fingerprints as a human movement. One way early humans gained evolutionary advantages over other species is because they were so good at being social.

From military marches to lullabies to One Direction concerts, the emotion in music can truly bind people together. But where do we get emotion from simple vibrations? Thalia Wheatley, a scientist from Dartmouth College, did a very cool experiment that suggests we may sense emotions in music the same way we sense emotions in human movement. She gave people simple controls that would create either melodies or animations of a bouncing ball. Half of them used the controls to create a melody. Other people got the very same controls, only instead of controlling music, they controlled the bouncing ball. The results were amazing! For each emotion they tested, the slider positions for the melody were the same as for the bouncing ball. Happy bouncing balls and happy music shared the very same controls. Same with sad, angry, peaceful. Emotion in music and movement seem to use the same patterns. I know what you’re thinking: This is just because of American pop-cultural norms that have been reinforced in our society for centuries, right? Well, they did the same experiment in a culturally isolated village in Cambodia, and they found out that the melodies and movements were almost exactly the same as the US!

Researchers have shown shows that motion and music go together beyond just dance moves, but may just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to figuring out why music can create so many feelings. Just like we can sense sadness by watching someone walk, and we know a happy dancer when we see it, music seems to move us because we move. Our connection to music overlaps with movement because we’re running different programs using the same hardware, and those programs are part of what makes it so great to be human.

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