There is a popular adage in life which states that “music is the language of the soul.” Of course, many of us will immediately connect with the sentiment of this statement. But some people will actually understand those words from a more physical perspective than others. And that’s because the manner with which they experience music is thought to be different.
In 2016 a group of researchers published a study exploring how different people react to music. The authors – Matthew E. Sachs, Robert J. Ellis, Psyche Loui and Gottfried Schlaug – titled their work, “Brain connectivity reflects human aesthetic responses to music.” And they presented their findings in a journal published in June that year known as Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
The abstract of the research begins with a statement that many of us might inherently grasp. It reads, “Humans uniquely appreciate aesthetics, experiencing pleasurable responses to complex stimuli that confer no clear intrinsic value for survival.” In other words, a certain experience might bring us satisfaction without directly contributing to our ability to stay alive.
However, the specific way with which people react to any given experience varies immensely. Indeed, while one person might be feel intensely about a given stimulus, another person might feel barely anything at all. At an anecdotal level, this might appear obvious – but the actual reasons for the divergence are quite hazy.
In seeking an answer, the authors of the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience paper turned their attention to music. They claimed that the artform was a perfect focus for the study, given its significance within people’s lives. Indeed, in their own words, they write, “[music] is often reported as one of the most enjoyable of human experiences.”
The researchers undertook their study by examining a group of 20 people, each of whom listened to six excerpts of songs. Three of these tunes were among each specific person’s most favored songs and the other three were less significant. The test subjects knew the latter three tunes, yet they did not affect them to the same degree as the former.
Of these 20 subjects, 50 percent claimed that they actually felt chills in their bodies upon hearing the music. And so the researchers set about trying to understand what separated the two halves of the sample group. They did so by scanning the subjects’ brains in a process known as Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI).
The researchers have implied that there is a psycho-physiological difference between individuals that felt chills and those that didn’t. And the brain scanning would actually appear to back up this claim. Indeed, the tests seemed to draw attention to demonstrable disparities in the makeup of individual brains.
“Results from diffusion tensor imaging show that white matter connectivity between auditory perceptual regions and regions of the brain important for emotional and social processing reflect individual differences in the tendency to experience chills from music,” the study states. In other words, the specific amount of white matter in the brain has a bearing upon how one experiences music.
The central nervous system – of which the brain is a major part – is composed of two different sorts of tissue, called gray and white matter. To the uninitiated, the differences between the two might initially appear complex, yet there’s an analogy to make things clearer.
Writing for the website Verywell Health, a social worker named Esther Heerema has elaborated on this analogy. She stated, “Think of the brain as a computer system and it might be easier to understand. The gray matter (nerve cells) of our brain is the computer and the white matter is the cables that connect everything together and transmit signals.”
In more technical terms, Heerema explained that white matter is made up nerve fibers or axons. These fibers link nerve cells together and are enveloped in myelin, a type of fat. Put simply, myelin helps to boost the pace with which brain cells send and obtain messages.
So returning again to the study, we can see that the researchers have suggested that the amount of white matter present in a person has a bearing upon their experience of music. As the paper stated, “The volume of white matter connectivity was significantly correlated with a participant’s tendency to experience chills. The more frequently a person reports experiencing chills, the larger the volume of white matter connectivity.”
Speaking to Neuroscience News in 2017, co-author of the study Matthew Sachs put it another way. He explained, “[The ten individuals who felt shivers] have a higher volume of fibers that connect their auditory cortex to the areas associated with emotional processing, which means that the two areas communicate better.”
However, these supposed results taken from the sample group may not apply just to music. In fact, Sachs himself has suggested that the findings might actually point towards something more significant. Indeed, he has put forth the possibility that people with more white matter feel more powerful emotions in general.
“Emotional reactions to aesthetic stimuli are intriguing experiences to humans as they are profoundly pleasurable and rewarding, yet highly individualized,” the research paper states. It continues, “Finding the behavioral and neural differences between individuals who do and do not experience such reactions may help gain a better understanding of the reward circuitry and the evolutionary significance of aesthetics for humans.”
Music, of course, is not the only experience capable of eliciting an emotional response from a person. And as Texas A&M College of Medicine head of neuroscience and experimental therapeutics professor William Griffith told Business Insider in 2017, strong emotions in general provoke the dispensation of adrenaline. This, he claimed, is down to a person’s fight-or-flight response.
When an animal finds itself under threaten, it secretes a range of chemicals and hormones. In turn, these chemical reactions set in motion the fight-or-flight response within the creature. In other words, the animal will either stay put in order to face the danger or it will flee.
After the response has been activated, chemicals such as adrenaline will bring about a rise in an animal’s heart rate. Similarly, the creature’s blood pressure will shoot up and the breaths it takes will increase. And even after the threat has ended, the animal will need up to an hour to calm down again.
As humans, we might recognize the fight-or-flight response from occurrences within our own lives. When we experience a threat, for instance, we may notice that our hearts have started to be beat more rapidly. But even in instances of danger which exist only in our head, the response might still be activated.
A person with a fear of speaking publicly, for example, might exhibit symptoms of fight-or-flight before giving a talk. The level of their heartbeat and breathing could increase and the individual’s skin may lose its color. Their pupils might dilate and their body can tremble and shake.
Many of us will recognize these reactions as having occurred within stressful moments in our own lives. Yet they might also occur in less drastic scenarios as well. For instance, art can conjure responses like the ones previously described – and this doesn’t necessarily apply solely to music.
Indeed, hearing a treasured tune might provoke a profound psycho-physiological reaction within a person. But similarly, if a person was to watch a particular movie sequence, they might then react in an equivalent manner. The reasons behind this remain obscured, but one argument posits that it has to do with the release of dopamine.
ome research has argued that the release of adrenaline caused from listening to music could be associated with a surge of dopamine. Furthermore, this hormone is involved in a process called the “reward response.” And, according to a 2011 study by the journal Nature Neuroscience, other pleasurable things, like good food or sex, can cause our brains to develop feelings of craving and euphoria. It added that when that feeling comes, our brain perceives it as a reward and releases dopamine.
So as some of us listen to music too, we might anticipate the changes in the song that lie ahead. And so when this change actually happens, dopamine is emitted throughout our bodies. Furthermore, this hormonal discharge occurs before a piece of music actually peaks. Indeed, this period is called the “anticipation phase.”
Indeed, this line of thinking may explain the success of musicians prone to unpredictable changes within their work. Similarly, if a chord is struck and then not repeated for some time, there’s a greater payoff when it returns. This theory could also explain why a song’s impact tends to be lost after multiple listens, because the chord changes are no longer unexpected.
Interestingly, the fact that some of us react to music in such a physical way might be explained through evolution. Developing goose bumps, for instance, is a characteristic which can commonly be observed in other creatures. It occurs when body temperature is lowered and hairs on an animal rise to retain heat close to the skin.
Other animals can exhibit the ability to develop goose bumps when they perceive danger. Indeed, it can make them appear bigger than they are in reality. And the fact that we can observe this in species besides our own, according to Professor Griffith, suggests that we developed the ability ourselves from our ancestors.
“Humans don’t necessarily have the ability or need to manipulate their body hair in such a way like our ancestors,” Professor Griffith told Business Insider. He continued, “But the trait still remains in our DNA. Whether that adrenaline release is prompted by an uncanny environment or [by] a sensational song.”
So it seems that music can bring about a series of genuine physiological effects on the human body. Indeed, as the 2016 report itself put it, “Individuals tend to report a complex array of bodily and mental sensations while listening to music. [These might include] the feeling of a lump in the throat, feeling moved and the experience of chills…”
A friend of one of the report’s co-authors has provided an anecdote in support of these claims. Indeed, Mathew Sachs’ friend Alissa Der Sarkissian – herself a research assistant at the University of Southern California – described the sensation she feels upon listening to Radiohead’s “Nude,” Der Sarkissian relayed a feeling that some might relate to.
“I sort of feel that my breathing is going with the song,” Der Sarkissian told the Neuroscience News website back in 2017. “My heart is beating slower and I’m feeling just more aware of the song – both the emotions of the song and my body’s response to it.”
So at an anecdotal level, we can see that music has a specific effect on certain people. But throughout the course of their study, Sachs and his colleagues apparently managed to demonstrate the claim scientifically. And they are also adamant of more significant implications to their work.
“People who get the chills have an enhanced ability to experience intense emotions,” Sachs has stated, as reported by the Classic FM website. He continued, “Right now, that’s just applied to music because the study focused on the auditory cortex. But it could be studied in different ways down the line.”
Meanwhile, it’s not yet clear whether or not these same principles might apply to aesthetic experiences such as architecture or visual art. And while more research will be necessary to answer this, the music study is seemingly a step in the right direction.
But the findings of the research which related directly to music are also potentially very important. As Sachs himself has claimed, there is a possibility that music might be further explored as a means of therapy. Indeed, people already use it to help manage their emotions.
But on top of this, Sachs believes music could also treat depression. And so he consequently plans to study the subject in relation to bipolar disorder. The researcher told Quartz in 2017, “Depression causes an inability to experience pleasure of everyday things. You could use music with a therapist to explore feelings.”
This is a similar sentiment to one espoused by a separate study by scientists from the University of York. The research argued that melancholy music can help us manage our emotions, along with eliciting strong feelings, while also bringing pleasure at the same time.
“One of the most important motivations to engage in music listening is its emotional effect on us,” the group of researchers wrote on the University of York website. They continued, “Listeners often report that they listen to music to calm them down, to stimulate them, to bring them into a positive mood or to experience emotions like melancholy or nostalgia.”
“Listening to the sound of music is [a] unique way to experience and engage with different contrasting emotions,” the University of York team continued. “[It helps] us to understand and regulate our mood according to many different situations. This makes music an important part of our overall mental wellbeing.”