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Why Does Music Make Us Feel Good?

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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