Why music makes us happy

Music is found across all human cultures and far back into human history. We all have different tastes in music but we enjoy music in similar ways.

  • we use music to enhance our emotions
  • we feel connected to other people through music
  • we can relive happy moments through music
  • music makes us want to move
  • music motivates us

It is amazing that after years, even decades without hearing a song, we can still sing along. If you play music with an upbeat rhythm to young children (and not so young) they will almost certainly start to dance along and probably with a smile on their face. Sports fans are moved when chanting and singing together and feel like part of something bigger than themselves. Music can remind us of a loved one or of a familiar place. A certain piece of music can take us back to a specific moment in our lives in a much more visceral sense than a photo could.

Music had such a huge impact on me as a child that for my second birthday I asked for a violin and I still have it, a tiny little quarter size. As with most children, when I heard music, I would dance happily around the room with no idea what I was doing. That is until I was 3 and started ballet lessons, then I could add a bit of technique into my random movements, but I never stopped improvising to music.

I actually ended up playing the cello. As I was growing up dancing and playing music and also singing, I always found the link between dance and music fascinating. I finally (partially) unraveled years of intrigue when I wrote my Masters dissertation titled ‘To Dance to Music is Human – an evolutionary perspective on rhythmic sound and movement’. It is a huge topic and I will write more blog posts about the link between dance and music but for now let’s focus on what it is about rhythmic sound which is so powerful for humans.

Depending on how we are feeling we can choose music to enhance our emotions depending on, for example, the tempo (fast or slow), rhythm (time signature, repetitiveness, syncopation) the melodic and harmonic quality (e.g. key signature, dissonance), orchestration (which instruments are used). Of course we don’t need to have any idea of these musical terms to be able to feel and enjoy the music.

For all of human history up until the last 150 years when sound recording was invented, music meant humans making rhythmic sounds with either their voices, hands, feet or instruments. Therefore if you were listening to music (that you weren’t making yourself) then you were with other people, in the same physical space. Historically, music was social and in fact played a very important part in ritual and social life for many cultures throughout human history. Very often music is made by more than one person playing or singing at the same time. This is an incredible ability which only humans posses, to be able to ‘rhythmically entrain’ to one another in order to play together and keep in time.

We are incredibly lucky now to have an incomprehensible amount of music available to anyone with an internet connection. Music written hundreds of years ago, music from all over the world. The irony of this is that now when we listen to music we don’t feel alone because throughout human evolution, music has (nearly) always meant being with other people. However, listening to music through headphones, as great as it is, will never replace the experience of live music. Just as playing the radio on our own in the car will never be the same as dancing along to a great song with friends.

Any of us lucky enough to have made music with other people (in a band, orchestra, choir) will know that there is another level of connection to the music and to each other in that moment. That is why I believe it is so important to offer children the chance to make music and develop this amazing human capacity.

I won’t go into dopamine and all the other hormones related to music because that could be a PhD on it’s own. We can all relate to how music can make us happy, it can move us to tears, it can make our hairs stand on end it can motivate and inspire us in ways that nothing else can. If you will take anything from this post I hope it is that you will take time to enjoy music with other people, include more live music in your life, and if you feel like you’d love to make music but think it’s too late to learn an instrument (it’s not) don’t forget the instrument you carry with you at all times –  your voice.



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