Why Does Music Bring Us Joy?

A woman listening to something with headphones on
Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Music can spark joy. Whether you’re grinning to a Dolly Parton tune, thrilling to a Bach concerto or weeping through a Puccini opera, you are engaged in what may be a uniquely human activity — the translation of music into emotions.

How and why our brains create this emotional response is a matter of scientific debate. Music can engage the same brain circuits and brain chemicals involved in our enjoyment of food and sex: pleasures directly linked with our survival. When a song sends tingles up your spine, “it’s like a musical orgasm,” complete with the release of natural opiates, says Morten Kringelbach, a neuroscience researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

Our favorite songs also engage brain areas known as the default mode network, which is linked to self-awareness, memory and well-being. We hear a song from our past and we’re overwhelmed with emotions.

Music may also create pleasure by playing with our expectations and engaging our brain’s predictive powers, says Kringelbach. As you listen to a piece of music, your brain is not only following the melody, harmony and rhythm; rather, it is constantly predicting where the music will go next. When your expectations are met, you feel a moment of delight. When your expectations are not met, you may also feel delight — a shiver of surprise or appreciation for the unexpected turn.

Cultural differences can affect our response to music. Someone who grew up listening to traditional Chinese music will respond differently from someone hearing it for the first time. Pop music from your youth may move you more than the songs your children love. Ultimately, however, music bonds us together — and adds meaning to our lives.

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This content is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide any expert, professional or specialty advice or recommendations. Readers are urged to consult with their medical providers for all questions.

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