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No one knows exactly why music has such a profound effect on our emotions. But thanks to scientific studies, we have exciting clues.

The go-to theory among scientists who study the cognition of music or how we process it mentally goes back to 1956. Philosopher and composer Leonard Meyer suggested that emotion in music is all about what we expect and whether we get it. Meyer drew on earlier psychological theories of emotion, which proposed that it arises when we cannot satisfy some desire. As you might imagine, this creates frustration or anger, but if we find what we’re looking for, be it love or a piece of chocolate, the payoff is all the sweeter.

This, Meyer proposed, is what music does--it arranges sonic patterns and regularities that entice us to make unconscious predictions about what’s coming next. If we’re right, the brain gives itself a little reward – called a surge of dopamine. The constant dance between expectation and outcome enlivens the brain with a pleasurable play of emotions. Of course, we all know that music has this direct line to emotions: who hasn’t been embarrassed by the tears that well up as the strings swell in a sentimental film or an orchestral arrangement.

In 2001, neuroscientists Anne Blood and Robert Zatorre at McGill University in Montreal used magnetic resonance imaging to prove that people listening to pleasurable music activate brain regions called the limbic and paralimbic areas. These connect to euphoric reward responses, similar to those we experience from sex and good food. The “good feeling” rewards come from a gush of a dopamine neurotransmitter which makes us want more -- contributing to our early ancestor’s propagation and survival.

But why does a sequence of sounds with no obvious survival value do the same thing?

The truth is no one knows for sure. However, we now have many clues as to why music provokes intense emotions. The idea that musical feelings arise from little minor violations and manipulations of expectations seems the most promising candidate theory, but it is tough to test. We expect rising melodies to continue to rise – but perhaps not indefinitely, as they never do. We expect pleasing harmonies rather than jarring dissonance – but what sounds pleasing today may have seemed dissonant two hundred years ago. We expect rhythms to be regular but are surprised if the jumpy syncopation of rock’ n' roll suddenly switches to four-square oompah time. Expectation is a complicated, ever-changing interplay of how the piece we’re hearing has gone so far, how it compares with similar pieces and styles, and how it compares with all we’ve ever heard.

We can rationalize a great deal about why we feel emotions from particular musical phrases and performances. Moreover, Meyer’s 1956 ideas have received further support from a brain-scanning study by Zatorre and colleagues, which showed that the rewards stimulated by music heard for the first time are mainly dependent on communication between “emotion” and “logic” circuits in the brain.

This picture also implies that music isn’t just about good vibrations – it can provoke other feelings, such as anxiety, boredom, and even anger. Composers and performers walk a delicate tightrope, needing to tweak expectations to the right degree. Not enough, and the music is dully, as nursery tunes seem to adults. Too much, and we can’t develop any expectations.

I think we all can agree, music is all around us intersecting our lives, regulating our moods and bringing good vibes to those who are listening. It raises our moods, brings excitement, or calms us down. It lets us to feel all the emotions that we experience in our lives.

For more information on this topic, please refer to an article by Philip Ball at

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  • Writer's pictureTim Socha

We are pleased to share information compiled by the Chorus America organization. Its impact study identified numerous reasons for advocating choruses in schools. The goal is to aid parents and choral leaders build a solid case for having choral music as part of the school curriculum.

As background, Chorus America is the advocacy, research, and leadership development organization that advances the choral field. It supports and serves choral conductors, administrators, board members, and singers with tools, training, peer networking, and access so that organizations like Greater Buffalo Friends of Music and choruses can better contribute to their communities.

Here are three primary reasons parents should advocate for choral music programs in schools.

1. Singing in a chorus is good for children in elementary, middle, and high school and can help them in the future.

Data indicates that an early introduction to choral singing is a building block for life-long learning and social success. Children who sing have academic success. The study also found choral singers exhibit increased social skills, civic involvement, volunteerism, philanthropy, and support of other art forms, versus non-singers.

2. The decline in choral singing opportunities for youth is a major concern.

One in five parents says there are no choir opportunities for their child. More than one in four educators say there is no choir program in their schools. In the past, schools have been a primary source of free opportunities to sing in choruses. Nearly a third (31%) said their school used to have a program.

3. Parent involvement is the key!

Educators report that schools with high parental involvement are significantly more likely to have music programs than schools with low parental influence.

Here are five steps to advocate for funding a chorus in your child’s school.

1. Familiarize yourself with the data available. School boards and administrators will be interested in understanding these facts and statistics that clearly illustrate the impact participation in choral singing has on learning and childhood development.

2. Recruit other parents and music educators to help you build and deliver the business case for arts funding.

3. Identify forums like PTAs and school board meetings. Get on their agenda to present your case.

4. Follow up with school board members and administrators. Make appointments with leaders to discuss this critical issue and obtain commitments for funding.

Facts for making the case that students who participate in the chorus are more successful academically and have more social skills and emotional intelligence.

Statistics supporting these findings are:

1. Academic Improvement

Children who participate in a chorus get significantly better grades. Parents state the following:

a. Higher Grades: 45% state their child receives “All or Mostly A's” in math (vs. 38% of non-choir parents).

b. Achievement in Language Arts: 54% state their child gets “All or Mostly A’s” in English and other language arts classes (vs. 43%).

c. Overall Academic Improvement: 61% say their child’s overall academic performance improved after joining the chorus.

d. Language Arts Skills: 64% say their child’s ability or performance in English/language arts improved since joining a chorus.

2. Social Skills and Emotional Intelligence Improvement

a. Self-Confidence: 71% say their child has become more self-confident.

b. Practice: 71% say their child has become better at practicing in other (non-chorus) activities.

c. Self-Discipline: 70% say their child's self-discipline has improved.

d. Problem Solving: 67% say their child has become better at problem-solving.

e. Participation in Sports: 64% also regularly participate in one or more sports either in or out of school.

f. Physical Fitness: 53% say their child has gotten in better physical condition.

3. Additional Dimensions of Improvement

a. Creativity: 90% say their children are (Very Creative) versus 72% of parents whose children do not sing in a choir.

b. Self-Esteem: 86% state their child has a strong sense of self-worth and self-esteem (vs. 63%).

c. Memory skills: 82% report their child has a (Very Good) memory (vs. 68%).

d. Teachers Agree on all the above!

Support Choral In Schools Today

Choral singing is a beautiful, participatory, and accessible art form. Choral music is the most popular form of public participation in the arts—about one in five people in the U.S. regularly participate in a community chorus or a school or church choir. Moreover, children are far more likely to stay involved with choral singing throughout their lives when exposed early.

Choral singing provides an extraordinarily accessible entry point for arts exposure, with fewer barriers to participation—economic, cultural, and educational—than those posed by other art forms. The voice is a readily available instrument! Furthermore, the costs to establish a choir tend to be lower than for other instrumental music programs.

America’s Chorus Impact Study involved national educators (from a wide range of academic subjects) and parents who completed an online survey.

Download the study at

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