Readers reply: why is listening to music pleasant?

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The Guardian

We might not agree on the genre, or the volume level, but almost all of us enjoy listening to music. Why? Esther Hayes, Bradford

Send new questions to nq@theguardian.com.

Readers reply

That really can depend on what music you’re listening to. Some music would have me confessing to horrendous crimes to make it stop. (In that vein, some artists should be arrested for crimes against humanity.) Gazthegardener

Certain frequencies are known to release serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. Minor and major chords can also evoke certain emotions in the listener. Jazzanorak

I like to classify music into two camps – music you can listen to only when you are in a certain mood, and music that is capable of changing your mood for the better. The latter is more difficult to find, particularly as I’m looking to mellow out. Indyfornorth

String theory? random2ratios

There’s no human culture that doesn’t have some kind of music. Even little babies who can’t yet walk will move their body to a musical beat and seem to take pleasure in it.

What I don’t understand is why anyone takes pleasure in deafening music that makes your ears bleed, of whatever genre. Not just because I’m getting old – I’ve always hated it. Surely this must mean some part of the brain is being affected in a completely different way from the music itself? BluebellWood

Same reason we enjoy listening to birds, or streams, or the wind rustling leaves … the sound helps fill our emptiness. smellthecoffee101

There is a very deep connection between music and communication, which is fundamental to all species. That’s obvious in the case of the blackbird I’m listening to as I write, but is as true for humanity – different vowels are formed by different mouth shapes causing different pitches to be produced. And rhythm is intrinsic to animal life in the shape of a heartbeat. So there is something very primal about music.

We are alone among species in having taken this basic communicative ability and overlaid it with an ability to generate novel sounds, to learn tunes and share them, and overlay the communicative melodies with other melodies to create songs. We’ve also invented new ways of generating tones using instruments, and new ways of enhancing the tones with dance. So there’s something intellectual about music.

Add the primal to the intellectual and you’ve got a recipe for generating emotions in your audience. It’s not surprising that out of all the emotions possibly generated by music, people – players and listeners – often choose the music they find enjoyable. SRW647

The brain reacting to patterns it knows. Some it enjoys, and hearing them gives pleasure. New versions that are similar give intense pleasure. New versions that match what we didn’t like don’t.

This explains musical taste and taste for repetition (favourites) – and also music growing on us with time. From initially only slightly pleasant, repetition reinforces the pleasure. JamesValencia

Music is neither pleasurable nor unpleasurable by default. Any so-called “pleasure” is usually unlocked by the means of having the freedom to choose to listen on favourable terms. Being forced to listen to any music, even music you assume to be pleasant, can easily morph into a form of psychological torture, just like being forced to listen to any unwelcome irritating noise. NewMe359

In normal sound, the waves combined are random. In music, they are carefully selected to form a harmony that puts your ears and mind at ease. Whatever the musical style, they all have that in common. It satisfies our natural desire for order and harmony and generates a sense of safety. Music was originally invented as a way to make noise all night, to keep the man-eating animals at a distance. Drumming and singing is obviously easier to do all night than banging and screaming. When the band plays, we know we can sleep safely. JemimaC

If the sound of it makes you and others feel good, you have a community. Also, if you don’t like it, and others don’t, the same applies. Music brings back memories and dreams of better times – past, present and future. Hearing a certain song, I am 13 and in the back garden of my parent’s house; another and it’s the day I got married; another and it’s the day I said goodbye to my parents. Music reminds of who, what, where and when – and sometimes how and why, too. Jimthescot

I’ve wondered this very question myself since I was a child, a long time ago. I don’t see the answer here. The absolute power of music remains a magnificent mystery to me. poorprints

I have absolutely no idea, but I am so, so glad that it is. Nktonga

July 17, 2022 at 06:38PM

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