Why Music Makes Us Feel So Good

Since I was a baby, I’ve always had a strong love for music. There are home videos of me at two years old bopping to Paul Simon and at seven quietly singing along to the Grease soundtrack. Through my teenage years I relied on music as an escape; I would go home after a bad day at school and immediately put on a Fleetwood Mac record, because I knew that would cheer me up. I always have known that music has a strong effect on me and my emotions, especially music that reminds me of past memories (I still love to listen to Graceland, the same Paul Simon album that I listened to as a toddler), but I never really looked into why.

I first wanted to find out why music has such an emotional effect on people, having the ability to make us happy, sad, or allow for an emotional release. This Time article explains the connection between music and the brain by discussing a recent Science report by neuroscientist Valorie Salimpoor, which claims that listening to music increases the neural activity in the nucleus accumbens—the area of the brain that releases dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is associated with pleasure, and it can be released during a variety of rewarding activities including sex, eating, drug use, exercise, or in this case, music. The researchers also found that music activated the amygdala—the area of the brain that processes our emotions. This discovery provides one explanation as to why music allows us to feel such a rush of pleasant emotions or helps us decompress after a stressful day. If music causes a release in dopamine, that means that music is triggering positive emotions.

But I didn’t just want to find out the connection between music and our emotions, I was also curious about why we often cling onto old, familiar music and typically feel stronger emotions toward those nostalgic songs. This Mic article interestingly explains some of the reasons behind why we listen to the same song over and over again, but what I found most interesting and helpful toward my own question was the idea known as the mere exposure effect.

The mere exposure effect states that we experience an increased liking toward things that we have more exposure to. So in the case of music, we enjoy music more when it is something that we are more familiar with. For example, that “something familiar” could be a particular artist, because we would be familiar with their voice and therefore experience greater pleasure in listening to any of their songs, it could be a particular song that we’ve grown to know very well by repeatedly listening to it, or it could even be a particular sound or style, which would explain why people generally have a favorite genre of music, because within genres there are repeated sounds, shared styles, forms etc.

The idea of the mere exposure effect’s relation to music isn’t just conjecture. A recent experiment studied the relationship between music and the brain, specifically testing if familiar music had a different effect on the brain than unfamiliar music. With the use of fMRI scans, the researchers began by playing various pop and rock songs to the subjects, which the subjects then individually rated by familiarity and how much they liked the song. With these ratings, the researchers developed a different grouping of songs for every subject, which they then played to the subjects while using an fMRI to track their brain activity. The collected data revealed that familiar music versus unfamiliar music led to much more increased activity in the areas of the brain associated with emotion and pleasure/reward. This shows that familiarity with music leads to a stronger emotional reaction in the brain—a scientific illustration of the mere exposure effect. For more scientific evidence, here’s another study that was conducted at UC Davis, which found that there is a direct correlation between the strength of a past memory’s connection to a song and the amount of brain activity in the emotion centers of the brain.

So, with all of this newfound information, I think that we can clearly see that there’s a reason why we love music so much, why we rely on it to cheer ourselves up, or why we feel a rush of emotion when we listen to that Backstreet Boys song that we used to play all the time as a kid. It’s nice to know that the pleasant reactions that we have while listening to music come directly from pleasure-transmitters in our brain, and that those great childhood memories really can be carried through time just by the tune of a song.

6 thoughts on “Why Music Makes Us Feel So Good

  1. dcd5251

    Hello Rebecca. First, I love the topic of your article. I am a large fan of music myself, and similar to your home videos of you as a kid, I have videos of me singing Stevie Wonder. I really could relate to the part you wrote about those nostalgic songs that make us feel some type of way. I went on a retreat at my school got Kairos, and each leader of the retreat told two songs and explained the connection to us. Those songs will always be important to me. Whenever I am driving in the car and hear the song “Beautiful Day” by U2, I always get a big smile on my face and become immediately happy. I also think music is one thing that can connect us all together. In world crisis, you always see big name musicians come together and call to the world to join as one. Below is a link to the song “We Are the World”.

  2. Pengji Wei

    Hi Rebecca.
    Nice article. Personally I love to listening music, especially those instrumental music such as paint music. Because I found out those music can relax myself. But I always do not know why. But after I read your article, I found out is is because of the brain and music have a connection. And it is unbelievable that music have so much connection with the brain. And your post remind me I have read an article is that listening music is good for people’s healthy, which is really interesting. And here is the link I found.

  3. dms6519

    I could related myself with this article. In my countries, we usually listen to love songs which makes us feel very into it especially when we are heartbroken. It is pretty incredible because i feel kind of happy and sad at the same time each time i listen to them as i can related my experiences with the songs. It is weird because i never feel this way before and music is the only thing that make me have this happy sad emotion.

  4. Alyssa Marie Frey

    I could really relate to this blog because I can always rely on music to make me feel a certain type of way. It especially comes in handy in college when walking to class and needing that extra boost in the morning to make my walk go a little faster, or when I need to study at a steady pace. I always find it interesting that certain songs make me think of specific memories or times when I heard the song for the first time. Music can also bring people closer together and I think that is really shown at concerts. If you love music, you have to go to a concert where everyone loves the same music and artist as you and everyone just vibes off each other. Concerts definitely elicit the most emotion from me when it comes to music.

  5. Emily Fiacco Tuite

    I can relate to your blog post a lot because I feel the same way about music. It alway finds a way to get me through anything. Music also brings back many fond memories of my friends and I from before I left for college. I feel like music is an inspiration to all of us because it gives us hope and it can make us let go of whatever is bothering us. Here is an article that I found. The article talks about how music impacts us everyday.


  6. Hannah Marni Stern

    I enjoyed reading this blog post a lot, as music is an integral part of my daily life. One song has the power to push me on a run, bring back incredible memories with friends, or even help me fall asleep. I was intrigued as I read about the science behind this concept, as it is so prevalent. When you talked about the mere exposure effect, it reminded me of this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/09/science/what-is-nostalgia-good-for-quite-a-bit-research-shows.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2 It talks about the research done regarding nostalgia, and how a moment of reminiscence can immediately turn negative emotions into positive ones.

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