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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Why do we like Music?

I am surprised at myself that it took me so long to ask this question. While attending a instrumental performance the other day, it occurred to me that I don’t know what makes people like music? Turns out, as it should be, I am not alone in asking the question. No one, though, knows the answer.

Primitive human must have heard music in his environment in form of songs of birds, fall of waterfall, running of horses, and so on. A rhythmic repetitive sound is considered music. Early human must have liked it and sometime would have started making his own music using stones and woods. Some speculate that rhythmic heartbeat of mother’s heart initiates association of pleasure with music. Here is a very detailed speculative argument for it, which, in essence, says that faster heartbeat during rage and excitement and smoother heart beat during rest and peace are beginning of our association of music with those kinds of emotions. Modern science has proven that listening music affects our emotions and moods though release of various hormones. Could that be the reason for our love of music, that we want to feel emotional? Perhaps we intentionally prefer a music which psychologically alters our physiological state of mind.

You can find enough research on why brain likes music: it does because it makes brain feel good. None of it answers the fundamental question that why music makes brain feel good. Why do pleasurable hormones secrete when listening to favourite melody? Why did we became such that we like music? Whales and Dolphins are known to sing but do they really sing or their communication is interpreted as singing by humans? There is some evidence that other animals and even plants enjoy music. Plants are thought to grow faster when exposed to pleasing music everyday. Is definition of music universal in that do animal consider music what humans consider music? Clearly there are cultural differences among humans themselves in their preferences, but question is not whether one likes a music but whether one understands a series of sounds as music. Or perhaps it is mere perfunctory to classify some sounds as music and all sound is music some of which we, as humans, like and some we don’t. Was there evolutionary advantage to type of human who could appreciate and enjoy music, or is it mere side effect of some other evolutionary useful trait?

Some sounds are considered pleasing while others are not. Origin of some is perhaps related to environment around us. Screeching of crows in irritating while singing of cuckoo is soothing, and hence our music grew to incorporate later. But not all tunes can be traced back to nature, so what makes one set of sounds pleasing than others? Here is another blogger asking the very question and his thoughts parallel mine very much (recommended read). I leave you with this paper which goes a little deep but still fails to answer the basic question. Natural extension of this question is why do we like art (picture, dance, painting…) in general?