Why We Love Music

To this point, I’ve been posting a lot of scientific evidence/research papers etc. So I don’t want you to be confused by this post. I’ll be stating my opinion for the most part (a running hypothesis of mine) mixed in with some evidence…

I’ve always been fascinated with the fact that, as humans, we immediately have a connection with music. Maybe you’ve seen this viral video at some point – “Notorious B.I.G. calms down crying baby”. Its a good chuckle:

There are many more examples like this; Just search around on Youtube. Generally, a baby hears music (who in my opinion shouldn’t have a reference point to enjoy music), and almost like hypnosis, they become magically engaged, seem to forget about their worries, and simply listen and enjoy the music. But why does this work? Is Biggy just that good?…..Yes and No.

I believe that part of what music does for us is based in its rhythm – and its inherent ability to entrain our brain waves to pulse at the same frequencies as the rhythms in the music. Confused? Here’s another way to put it – When you hear a sound, your nervous system transmits the sound wave to your brain by way of the auditory nerve – producing an electrical potential in your brain. If you hear a pulse at a certain frequency your brain becomes entrained to that pulse and fires electrical signals at that same rate.

Here is a real life example: your brain hears a bass drum pulsing quater notes at 120bpm (beats per minute), it receives sound waves at 120bpm and transmits that information in pulses to other neurons at 120bpm throughout your brain. The rhythms played between those notes (high hats, snare drums, vocals etc) are also transmitted through your brain at their respective frequencies. Through enough repetition, the music likely entrains your brain to the rhythm. If that rhythm/frequency happens to be similar to the frequencies that we experience during meditation (alpha, theta, delta frequencies/waves), that should have some interesting effects (See my post on alpha brain waves/meditation/sensory focus and benefits: https://themeditativebrain.wordpress.com/2013/02/19/alpha-brain-waves-correlate-with-sensory-focus-meditation-secondary-benefits).

Ever hear of Yucatecan trance induction beats? They probably induce a similar effect: A drummer repeatedly beats his drum at 210bpm for about 30min. Apparently, after about 15 minutes, church goers listening to the beat go into a trance-like, euphoric state.  Here’s another example – entrainment even works during sleep. Pulsing a delta frequency (1-2 Hz) has shown to induce an entrainment effect on slow wave sleep patterns. Researchers have generated slow delta waves in the brain’s of subjects by entrainment to an audible delta pulse. I’m guessing yet another example of this effect comes from Tibetan Singing Bowls, commonly used to help induce a meditative state. Here’s a video if you’re unfamiliar with these bowls:

Do you hear the pulsing sounds? I’m hearing pulses in the delta to theta range (frequencies ranging from 1-7 Hz). Research shows that when our brains go from an “everyday life” beta wave state (varying from ~14Hz-30Hz), usually associated with higher thinking, concentration, worry, anxiety, and agitation, to a slower alpha wave state (8-13 Hz) or theta brain wave state (4-7Hz), we have a greater sense of relaxation, happiness, and joy. On a molecular level, its been shown that greater levels of serotonin are released into the synapse during the alpha state (and I’m guessing also in theta). Are you using a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (Celexa, Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft etc) to help you with your depression? Similarly, these type of drugs act to keep serotonin in your synapses, thereby helping to treat your depression.

But how does this relate back to the baby video?  When we listen to,

“Biggie, Biggie, Biggie, can’t you see…”

we’re hearing rhythmic frequencies around 5-6Hz (in theta) and a various mix of other alpha frequencies. To register those sounds as information, your brain needs to fire neurons at that rate (and as discussed, these frequencies are shown to have positive effects). Don’t you love being absorbed in your favourite songs? The more we focus on the sound, the greater amount of our brain’s resources begin to fire at those rhythmic frequencies, and thus we get greater enjoyment from the music.

So is this why the baby is loving Biggy so much? And is this why we love music? Maybe. Albeit, its probably much more complicated. My request to you – maximize the experience you can get from music – be like the baby. Stop doing other things while listening to music, be present with it, stop thinking, and get absorbed in the music (i.e. close your eyes and put some headphones on). You’ll be happier and more fulfilled for it…and well, that is just being mindful, isn’t it.

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