music, brain and emotions

in line with the theme of art and creativity this month, i thought i’d dish up something about music psychology. this fabulous site on the topic brought me to an interesting article on the neurobiology of the emotional effects of music.

music profoundly affects our moods. but how exactly does that work? that’s what jaak pansepp and guenther bernatzky investigate in their journal article emotional sounds and the brain.

as far as the evolution of the brain goes, some researchers appear to believe that music is not hardwired into our neurological processes (one researcher called music “cultural cheesecake”), others feel that music does play an important part in the evolution of our brains.

at any rate, most humans become attached to certain pieces of music, and pansepp and bernatzky suspect that the bonds we form with these pieces of music are neurobiologically similar to the love bonds that we form. music is often said to be the language of emotions. pansepp and bernatzky also argue that this language is meaningful across cultures, maybe even species. (which makes immediate intuitive sense when it comes to, say, the beatles, but becomes a bit more of a question when listening to chinese opera, swiss yodellers or first nations chants).

in this article, the authors attempt to start an investigation into questions such as

what is it about our brains, our minds, that make them such receptive vessels for the emotional power of music?

how much has evolution prepared our neuro-mental apparatus to appreciate music?

how deep in mind/brain evolution can we find the stamp of rhythmic ‘musical’ dispositions within the neurodynamics of ‘being’?

the authors don’t offer any definitive answers. their aim is to familiarize the reader with what knowledge there exists today. in the introduction, they state that

Our overriding assumption is that ultimately our love of music reflects the ancestral ability of our mammalian brain to transmit and receive basic emotional sounds that can arouse affective feelings which are implicit indicators of evolutionary fitness.

In other words, music may be based on the existence of the intrinsic emotional sounds we make (the animalian prosodic elements of our utterances), and the rhythmic movements of our instinctual/emotional motor apparatus, that were evolutionarily designed to index whether certain states of being were likely to promote or hinder our well being.

However, upon such fundamental emotional capacities, artists can construct magnificent cognitive structures of sound – musical cultures – that obviously go far beyond any simple affective or evolutionary concerns. In any event, the understanding of how music arouses emotional/affective processes of the brain may be essential for clarifying the extended love affair of our species with music.

isabella mori
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