there's a scientific reason why you love – or hate – everything in the pop charts

For The Sounding Off Issue​, we asked a collection of music makers, writers, thinkers and shakers to contribute their thoughts and opinions about music in 2017. Today, we hear from the author of Why We Love Music, and someone whose brain doesn't let them.

by Dr John Powell and Erin Schwartz
|
03 November 2017, 3:34pm

This article originally appeared in The Sounding Off Issue, no. 350, Winter 2017.

Erin Schwartz, writer, on having musical anhedonia
I'm sitting on my grandmother's couch, telling her about musical anhedonia. I'd recently discovered the term, which describes a lack of enjoyment in music, estimated to affect about five percent of the population. For musical anhedonics, there is a missing link between the brain's ability to comprehend a song and the instinct to find it pleasurable.

"I think I have that. I don't really like music," I say.

I'm surprised to hear that she feels the same. "Your grandfather loved music, and I sensed that I was lacking something. It just wasn't a necessity to me."

Later, she tells me about her childhood in north-east Vermont – the town was remote, radio signals were weak, and music came through faint and choppy, primarily stations broadcasting from Canada. There were no music classes at her elementary school. When she was a teenager, she'd listen to Your Hit Parade (an ancestor of the Top 40 chart) with her ear pressed to the radio, trying to discern the lyrics through the weak signal, more interested in memorising the words than in the melodies. She liked to sing in her choir and dance, but listening to music – rather than making it, or moving to it – didn't interest her.

In the University of Barcelona study that first identified musical anhedonia, researchers asked the test subjects to bring in their favourite music from home, but had to redesign the experiment because many of the music anhedonics didn't own CDs.

"When people who like music fall in love, they might listen to pop anthems to amplify what they feel, or intricate ballads that render their emotions sharper and more lucid. For musical anhedonics, the path isn't so direct."

I remembered getting a new computer two years ago and transferring documents and photos, but leaving behind a disorganised collection of music given to me on USB sticks by friends. I didn't need it; like my grandmother, I don't listen to music at home. But I love to sing, especially with other people.

When people who like music fall in love, they might listen to pop anthems to amplify what they feel, or intricate ballads that render their emotions sharper and more lucid. For musical anhedonics, the path isn't so direct; music on its own doesn't spark joy, but the sociality of music can, or the physical pleasure of playing an instrument, dancing, or singing, or the specific memories associated with a song. When I first fell in love, my friends were listening to emo and pop-punk like My Chemical Romance, AFI and Avenged Sevenfold. Now, when I have a crush, I'll put on Welcome To The Black Parade. It feels silly, but the memory comes back with surprising sharpness. The details of how I felt when I first listened are still there, hard-wired into the song.

Dr John Powell, author of Why We Love Music, on why we love music
Your body supplies itself with a variety of chemicals to help you cope with life. For example, if someone starts shouting at you, your body will get a shot of adrenaline to give you extra energy in case you need to run away or fight.

On the other hand if you do something which is good for you – such as sex or eating – the pleasure centres of your brain will reward you by releasing serotonin and dopamine into your system, which will encourage you to repeat the activity sometime in the future.

Music has the keys to your personal pharmacy and can cause your brain to dispense all these chemicals, and others. Dopamine and serotonin are released when you listen to music you enjoy, and exciting music releases adrenaline (which is one of the reasons why dance music makes you want to dance).

"Music is particularly good at bonding people together because it releases oxytocin, which is also produced during breast-feeding and sex."

"Music has the keys to your personal pharmacy."

Music is particularly good at bonding people together because it releases oxytocin, which is also produced during breast-feeding and sex. Apart from just listening, oxytocin is strongly linked to group singing, which is why people who sing together, from marching soldiers to football crowds, feel a strong sense of togetherness.

Music can also reduce the amount of various chemicals in your system if that's what you require. If you're having trouble getting off to sleep it's probable that you have too much of the stress hormone norepinephrine floating around.

Norepinephrine controls your level of vigilance, which is useful when you're driving but it's a pain in the neck when you're trying to get some sleep. Fortunately, norepinephrine levels can be reduced by listening to calming music. Researchers have found that a bedtime playlist of calming music can alleviate stress levels and depression by re-establishing a healthy sleep pattern.

So, whether you're dancing, bonding with others, partying or simply trying to get off to sleep, music provides the perfect accompaniment – enjoy.

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