Editor’s note: This is a lightly edited version of a speech delivered at TOS-Con 2022. The written version retains the character of an oral presentation.
Let’s start with a little experiment. Listen to this short clip of music and take note if at any point you feel chills or goosebumps or the like.1
Do you feel that? That’s Merry Clayton’s background vocal on “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones, and it gives me chills every time.
Music is an incredibly potent force. It can give us goosebumps; it can make us laugh; it can make us cry. It can unlock long-forgotten memories and flood us with emotions. It can transfix us, and it can activate the same reward circuits in the brain as drugs, sex, and candy.2 It can also activate the brain’s stress circuits, releasing cortisol.
Twenty-five years ago, scientists thought that our capacities for language were on the left side of the brain and those for music were on the right. But our understanding has come a tremendous way since then. According to Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist who studies music’s effects on the brain, music affects almost every area of the brain so far studied.3 After former congresswoman Gabby Giffords survived a gunshot wound to the head, she had to relearn how to speak. She did that using music therapy.4 Music enabled her to rewire her brain. Music can also increase the size of certain structures within the brain, most notably the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerves that connects the left and right hemispheres. Children who play musical instruments have larger corpus callosa than those who don’t, and they do better on tests of critical thinking and creative problem solving.5 And as everybody who’s ever taken part in karaoke knows, singing—especially with groups of people—can help rid us of anxiety, depression, and feelings of loneliness. Singing in groups can release oxytocin and enhance social bonding.6
How many people woke up with music this morning? How many people worked out to music? How many people commuted with music playing in the car or in earbuds? For many, music is a near constant part of our lives. We use it to buoy our moods and to help us fall asleep at night. It’s a life-enhancing “drug,” and we’re all hooked on it.
But most of us don’t really know how or why music works the way it does, why it affects us the way it does, why we like the songs that we do. It’s the closest thing that we rational 21st-century people have to alchemy. We have our broth of Beatles with a pinch of Pink Floyd and a dash of Hendrix, and maybe some beheaded Black Sabbath bats—and that’s our stew for the day. But, for the most part, we have no idea why or how the stew works. . . .
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1. Remco Terhoeven, “Gimme Shelter—Merry Clayton (Vocal),” YouTube, October 23, 2013, https://youtu.be/njAuEGRthuw.
2. Nolan Gasser, Why You Like It: The Science and Culture of Musical Taste (New York: Flatiron Books, 2019), 280.
3. Daniel Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (New York: Penguin, 2007), 85–86.
4. “How Does Music Affect Your Brain?,” Wired, March 15, 2019, https://youtu.be/HRE624795zU.
5. Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music, 226; “Musicians Use Both Sides of Their Brains More Frequently Than Average People,” Vanderbilt University News, October 2, 2008, https://news.vanderbilt.edu/2008/10/02/musicians-use-both-sides-of-their-brains-more-frequently-than-average-people-65577/.
6. Gunter Kreutz et al., “Effects of Choir Singing or Listening on Secretory Immunoglobulin A, Cortisol, and Emotional State,” Journal of Behavioral Medicine 27 (December 2004): 623–35, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10865-004-0006-9; Gunter Kreutz et al., “Does Singing Facilitate Social Bonding?,” Music and Medicine 6, no. 2 (October 25, 2014), https://mmd.iammonline.com/index.php/musmed/article/view/MMD-6-2-9.
7. See David Huron, Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006); Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music; and Gasser, Why You Like It.
8. Dr. Lee Bartel, “Music Medicine: Sound at a Cellular Level,” TEDx, November 9, 2017, https://youtu.be/wDZgzsQh0Dw.
9. Scott Rickard, “The World’s Ugliest Music,” TEDx, October 3, 2011, https://youtu.be/RENk9PK06AQ?t=432.
10. Margulis, On Repeat, 17.
11. David Berry, “Music as Physical and Psychological Action,” forthcoming.
12. Ayn Rand, “Philosophy and Sense of Life,” The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature, rev. ed. (New York: New American Library, 1975), 25.
13. For instance, see Craig Anderson et al., “Exposure to Violent Media: The Effects of Songs with Violent Lyrics on Aggressive Thoughts and Feelings,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84, no. 5, 960–71.
14. For instance, see, Andrew Triplett, “Music and Aggression: Effects of Lyrics and Background Music on Aggressive Behavior,” Loyola eCommons, December 6, 2016, https://ecommons.luc.edu/luc_theses/3274/.
15. Huron, Sweet Anticipation, 1–25.
16. Huron, Sweet Anticipation, 1–25.
17. Anthony Chmiel and Emery Schubert, “Back to the Inverted-U For Music Preference: A Review of the Literature,” Psychology of Music 45, no. 6, 886–909, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0305735617697507.
18. Huron, Sweet Anticipation, ch. 8, “Prediction Effect.”
19. Carl Seashore, Psychology of Music (New York: Dover Publications, 1967), 5–6, 161–72.
20. Gasser, Why You Like It, 284–85.