How Does Music Have a Hotline to Our Emotions?

Music is art with the world within itself. It is far more powerful than language and acts as a medium to express an individual’s deepest thoughts and emotions. Music is a mirror of the self.

The songs on our playlist reflect more than just the artists we like, it reflects who we are and provides a small window to how our brain works. Although music taste fluctuates over time, our empathy levels and cognitive styles can predict our musical preferences.

Music is central to youth culture. On average, the youth spend four to five hours a day listening to music and watching music videos, which is more than the time they spend with their family and friends outside school. Studies have discovered that people listening to music have less anxiety and lower level of the stress hormone; cortisol, than people who take drugs.

Now, why does music make us feel the way it does? Recently Korean Pop music has been gaining popularity rapidly all across the world and almost 80% of the people listening to them don’t understand a word but are nevertheless enthralled. Is it because the sounds of human speech are thrilling? Not really. Speech sounds alone, leaving out their meaning, do not inspire. Speech sounds do not give us the chills or make us cry, not even Korean.

But music does give us the chills, make us cry, or even most of the time lifts our mood.

Have you ever listened to great music and experienced a shiver run up your spine? Or even goosebumps tickle your arms and shoulders? This kind of behaviour from your body is called ‘frisson’, a French term meaning “strong feeling of excitement” and it feels like waves of pleasure running all over your skin. This feeling of frisson does not only come by listening to music but also when you look at an astonishing artwork or watch a moving scene in a movie.

But why do some people experience frisson?

While scientists are still researching on this topic and unlocking the secrets regarding this phenomenon, research from over the past few decades has traced that the origins of frisson are connected to how we react to unexpected stimuli in our environment, particularly music. Music that includes unexpected changes in volume and harmonies or a moving entrance of a performer triggers frisson because they transgress the listeners’ expectations in a positive way.

In contrast, it is the cognitive component of openness to experience, that are associated with frisson to a greater degree than the emotional components.

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