girls smiling secret

Image by Kevin Schmitz.

Remember the last time a song really moved you. Remember you were so excited by the experience that you couldn't wait to tell someone about it. But then, just as you were about to ask your friend if they felt the same thing, you realized that you were the only one at that time feeling the same way. You can't explain it. Why were you at a loss for words? Because with music, sometimes there are no words. Instead, you were feeling a unique and complex aesthetic emotional experience that is based purely on your own internal pleasure centers. You were experiencing beautiful music that your brain craves.

Music for beauty or purpose?

Complex musical emotions can be generally categorized into two types of emotions: aesthetic emotions and utilitarian emotions. Utilitarian emotions are distinguished from aesthetic emotions by the fact that they are normally driven by self-interest and/or goal-directed action. A simple example of these goal-directed emotions include your fight or flight emotions, like fear or disgust. But as you may already be thinking, not all music emotions are based on goal-directed action. That wouldn't be any fun!

Music emotions are felt and expressed in ways that can barely even be explained by adjectives because they are so central to the human experience. The few music emotions that can be put into words include emotions like: joy, nostalgia, peacefulness, power, sadness, tenderness, tension, transcendence, and wonder (Zentner, Grandjean, & Scherer, 2008). The aesthetic emotions that attract the most attention in scientific circles are awe, nostalgia, and enjoyment.

It's important to understand aesthetic emotions. They are highly pleasurable feelings that don't have an apparent goal-oriented purpose. That's why they are so hard to explain. We often think about emotions as generating action like fear creating the impulse to run. However, with experiences in art like music, which are a unique aspect of the human condition that taps into a deep and beautiful conscious perception of pleasure, the emotions themselves are just as real and often physiologically indistinguishable from from everyday goal-directed emotions (Juslin & Västfjäll, 2008). So when you are listening to your favorite motivational song, like Ellie Goulding's "On My Mind" (Listen Here), and you sense deep enjoyment and pleasure—it's real. Take a moment each day to truly feel and enjoy your aesthetic emotions.

That song gave me the "chills" (in a good way)

Mental pleasure from music comes in a variety of forms. You have felt these sensations before. Ever feel chills when you listen to music? I bet you have. These "chills" you experience while listening to music are associated with the release of dopamine in the brain and the result is intense musical pleasure. Simply put, dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that makes you feel and do happy things. It is also the chemical commonly involved in addictive drugs. So yes, music is a drug of sorts, but a healthier kind.

People also report getting the "chills" when they listen to the oldies. Why would music you have listened to hundreds of times and with less sound quality produce a pleasurable chill sensation? It's actually simple and has to do with a strong aesthetic emotion: nostalgia. Good music memories anchor deep in our brains because of the strong emotions associated with them. These memories can be recalled many years after the initial music moment. The peak aesthetic experience we sometimes feel from simple everyday casual listening of beautiful music actually changes our brain chemistry. Whether it be awe, enjoyment, or some other aesthetic emotional experience, changes in brain metabolism occur and the memory is "burned" into your brain. Beautiful music is a gift that keeps on giving. Many years later you can hear the same old song, like Steve Windwood's Higher Love (Listen Here), and reach another peak aesthetic experience based on nostalgia induced by music. Catchy tunes do in fact get stuck in your head. It happens to everyone—it's hardwired into our biology.

brain craves music

Aesthetic emotions and the chill reaction are very powerful and very useful to society. Why does something that produces little immediate human action mean so much to the greater human experience? Speaking from an evolutionary perspective, the dopamine release and intense pleasure associated with the shared music experience helps us bond with people. This ancient brain circuitry is a mechanism that allows for more human cohesion, mother-infant relationships, and even mate choice. Think about your loved one's music taste. While it might not be exactly the same, I am willing to bet that there are more than a few songs you enjoy together. Treasure these music moments together because they are a truly deep and ancient emotional bond between the two of you.

Power of music to paint a picture of emotion

Music is important to you despite often lacking in short-term motivational goals, but there is more. On top of inducing emotions in you, music expresses perceivable and recognizable communicated emotions other than the ones you are feeling at the moment. These emotional expressions sometimes are so strong you can almost visualize them. Examples of this musical visual imagery include such things as a bird singing or a thunderstorm rolling in.

Music means different things to different people because music perception involves factors like: the structural features of the music, the listener's features, the performer's features, and the contextual features, which can change the overall emotional perception of a song (Scherer et al., 2008). The ability to picture motion when listening to music comes from changes in the structure of the music. This activates parts of your brain associated with movements and imagining actions. The imitative characteristic of music may express qualities of objects, human gestural cues, or even describe complex concepts. It is fun to close your eyes and let the music paint a moving picture of emotion. The power of music to paint a picture of emotion allows you to perceive and recognize emotional communication where words would otherwise fail.

beautiful music emotion

Image by Mark Bosky.

Put simpler

The aesthetic emotions you experience while listening to a piece of music are real and powerful. They have an ancient purpose—they bring people together through shared enjoyment. Don't worry if you can't explain how music makes you feel; sometimes there are no words. But that doesn't take away the importance of music to your mental health and happiness. When you are having a bad day, do yourself a favor:

Create your "gives me chills" music playlist and start collecting happiness. When words fail, you use music for happiness.Tweet: Create your Share this

-Clay for SndControl-

See Juslin, P.N., & Västfjäll, D. (2008). Emotional responses to music: The need to consider underlying mechanisms. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31, 559–621.

See Zentner, M., Grandjean, D., & Scherer, K.R. (2008). Emotions evoked by the sound of music: Characterization, classification, and measurement. Emotion, 8(4), 494-521.

For question or comments, email me at