Turn the Geek On: The Science Behind Music

Know what’s fun? Science. And know what’s even more fun? Music. So imagine the joy we experience when they both meet. Here at Loog, we spend an unhealthy amount of time trying to figure out how music actually affects the brain (as our Your Kid’s Brain on Music infographic shows) and the entire science behind music. It’s our little hobby, in a way. So we’re well aware of the data out there and studies looking to see what impact music has on the brain exactly.

One of our favorite experiments, which we’ve shared on Twitter, is changing minor and major keys to a song in order to radically change the way it is perceived. Whenever you do this, the song is highly recognizable. But instead of being happy-go-lucky, for instance, it becomes gloomy or sad – and viceversa. You see, major keys are usually found in happy, fresh songs. And those songs you’re so addicted to during break-ups? Those are all in minor keys. See the difference for yourself with this video from REM’s Losing My Religion, played in a major key.


Our second fascination: listening to sad music when we’re sad. What’s that all about? Why would someone salt their own wound like that, right? (We also like to call this the Adele effect). A new study shows that sad music actually induces pleasant emotions when listened to. But exactly why it does this is still a mystery. Composer Stephen Johnson says it’s because “There is something about seeing your own mood reflected that allows you to let go of that feeling”. Others think it’s because it becomes relatable.

Or, just maybe, it’s the thrill of anticipation and having those expectations met. As this NY Times piece shows, listening to music releases dopamine in the brain, but just not at any time:

We found that listening to what might be called “peak emotional moments” in music — that moment when you feel a “chill” of pleasure to a musical passage — causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, an essential signaling molecule in the brain.

When pleasurable music is heard, dopamine is released in the striatum — an ancient part of the brain found in other vertebrates as well — which is known to respond to naturally rewarding stimuli like food and sex and which is artificially targeted by drugs like cocaine and amphetamine.

But what may be most interesting here is when this neurotransmitter is released: not only when the music rises to a peak emotional moment, but also several seconds before, during what we might call the anticipation phase.

This would also answer one of our longest living musical neuroscience questions: why are electronic music drops so awesome and why does a song without them seem like something’s missing? That instant gratification might be the answer.

Do you have any other music-related science tidbits you’d like to share? Feel free to comment We LOVE this stuff!