What happens in the brain when sound waves become music and
music becomes emotions.


What happens in the brain when sound waves become
music and music becomes emotions.


The sound of Mahler’s 5th Symphony overwhelms you. The beauty of the strings and the power of the horns make your eyes wet, and somewhere in your soul you realise life’s despair – and deepest meaning. Then you push a button and Leonard Cohen’s intense and melancholic voice awakens long–forgotten memories before you skip to the beats of a Pharrel Williams song and your feet inevitably start to move – and a smile spreads across your face.

Bach’s organ concerts and David Bowie’s voice could never exist in a soundproof room. Music is sound waves which our brain interprets, so it touches our emotions and makes our minds tremble. But although the brain in many ways is still a mystery to science, we know that music affects many parts of the brain and that a lot of brain functions come into play while listening to music.

That’s why brain scientists are very interested in music, because they can learn a lot about brain functions by exposing the brain to both Bach and Beastie Boys.

One of the world’s leading experts on the intimate relationship between music and the brain is the brain scientist (and musician) Peter Vuust from the brand new research centre “Music in the Brain” at Aarhus University in Denmark. He explains how music affects us in four different ways. We perceive it, it makes us act, we can play it and it affects us emotionally.

That’s why the researchers strive to pursue four different directions: perception, action, learning and emotion. “The beauty is that this is not only interesting in terms of how the brain interacts with music, but it teaches us a lot about how the brain works in general,” he says.


getting hiiiigh

Music makes you high. For real. The “chill effect” is what scientists call it when your emotions are too big to fit your body and you feel like Kevin Bacon in Footloose or Elliott in E.T. Canadian brain scientists have demonstrated that when it trickles down the back, it’s because the brain secretes dopamine. Dopamine is linked to the brain’s reward system, which is part of the frontal lobe. It’s a mechanism we have been equipped with in order to do something for our own survival. When we eat our favourite foods or make love to someone, the brain secretes dopamine too. So even though music does not have an obvious value for our species to survive, our bodies reward us for listening to our favourite songs.

“In our everyday life we always search for that little kick which music can provide for us. We are attracted to music for the same reasons we are attracted to sex and good food. To get the reward from the dopamine,” Peter Vuust explains.

I get so emotional, baby

Do you cry when listening to Maria Callas? Or Mariah Carey? Does "Love Me Tender" remind you of falling in love for the first time? Or maybe "Smells Like Teen Spirit"? Several factors come into play when you look at which music has the strongest influence on our feelings. We have to take universal, cultural and individual factors into account, because our emotions are controlled by all three. Human beings are designed to react to loud noises because it’s part of our defence system. Most of us agree that music in a major key makes us happy while that in a minor key fills us with sadness and melancholy. But that’s not necessarily the truth in all parts of the world.

 Just the fact that we are exposed to certain music from birth causes us to learn specific cultural patterns that our consciousness is not aware of. And then we have the specific differences that make us all individuals.

“We know quite a lot about these things, but the more we know, the more we realise what we don’t know. Of course we don’t know for sure how the biggest experiences and emotions emerge, but we have a pretty good idea of what is going on in the brain when it happens,” Peter Vuust says.

I just can't get you out of my head

You hate the song, but you can’t get rid of it. Or it won’t get rid of you! When you try to sleep, while you're in a meeting, yes even on a date, it will continue playing in your brain like a sticky piece of gum with its devilishly catchy melody and sing-along chorus. But there’s a scientific explanation to it. Our brain just loves it when it gets the opportunity to try to predict what will happen next in the music.

Music is an artwork of time, where it’s essential that the notes come at the right time. That’s what gives music its strong predictive power and that’s why music is so important to the brain scientists. One of the theories is that the brain constantly tries to predict the future. And when the brain is able to predict the future correctly – that re comes after do and before mi – we get the small reward of dopamine, which makes us get hiiigh. “We call it predictive coding, because we see the brain as a machine, that predicts what will happen next. As long as the world lives up to brain’s expectations, very little happens. That is practical, because the brain uses less energy. Our brain only works when the unexpected happens and it constantly adjusts to what we experience,” says Peter Vuust.

Did you know?

Music is a biological phenomenon and scientists have not yet found a human culture that has not used music in one way or another. The oldest musical instrument known to man is about 40,000 years old, so the history of homo sapiens is followed by a musical score.

Scientists have always tried to provide answers to music's evolutionary emergence. One theory is that rhythm comes from monkeys, who would scare off enemies more effectively by creating noise together as a group instead of separately.

Music and singing have played an important role in human rituals for thousands of years by creating social relationships and thus preventing conflicts. While language is concrete and can express precise meaning, music is able to create emotions and a sense of community.


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