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.