A Blog by Virginia Hughes

Why Does Music Move Us So?

“Only human.” It’s a downer of an idiom, used to convey the inevitable transgressions and inadequacies of our species. He cheated on his wife with a supermodel, but come on, he’s only human. No, she can’t write three blog posts a day and Tweet every hour and read historical biographies in her spare time, she’s only human.

But, really, what’s “only” about human biology, emotions, behaviors and history? At very least, they make for some good stories.

A cop in Florida once found a scientist dissecting an armadillo penis on the side of the road. A genetic screen made me reconsider my coffee habits. Poverty breaks down connections in a baby’s brain. Tourism in the Galápagos is simultaneously funding conservation efforts and destroying the things that need to be conserved. Stories about people — what we’re made of, what we do, why we do it — are what interest me most, and what you’ll find on this blog.

I’m kicking off with a story about the (maybe) uniquely human capacity to feel emotion through music. Why does a lullaby soothe a newborn, a dirge console the grieving, and a KoRn song make you want to rip your ears out?

According to a study out yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, our cognitive connection to music may have evolved from an older skill, the ability to glean emotion from motion. People will choose the same combination of spatiotemporal features — a certain speed, rhythm, and smoothness — whether pairing a particular emotion with a melody or with a cartoon animation, the study found. But most surprising, the results held true in people from two starkly different cultures: a rural village in Cambodia and a college campus in New England.

The study dates to an afternoon in the spring of 2008, when Beau Sievers sat down for a class on the origins of music at Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire. Sievers, a composer, was working on a Master’s degree in something called electroacoustic music (now called digital musics), an unusual program for people who want to study relationships between music, technology and cognitive science. That afternoon the class heard from a guest lecturer, psychology professor Thalia Wheatley, whose neuroimaging studies had pinpointed some of the brain regions involved in perceiving motion. Other labs had found that some of the very same regions activate during music perception, giving Wheatley the idea that the two skills are somehow linked in the mind. She presented the general hypothesis to Sievers’s class, adding that she hadn’t yet found a rigorous and quantitative way to test it.

After class, Sievers asked Wheatley if he could work on that for his Master’s thesis. She said sure, and over the next few months, the duo came up with a clever experiment.

The experiment hinges on a computer program, written by Sievers, that allows participants to create their own melodies or bouncing-ball animations by adjusting five slider bars. Each bar represents a different aspect of the sound or movie: rate sets how many beats per minute; jitter determines the predictability of those beats; smoothness can add a spiky texture to the ball and dissonance to the music; step size gives the height of the bounce and distance between notes; and direction controls whether the ball leans forward or backward and the pitch of the notes.

The study included 50 Dartmouth students. Half used the program to make songs and the other half made animations. After getting used to the program, participants were asked to tinker with the sliders until they had created a song or movie expressing a specific emotion — angry, happy, peaceful, sad or scared.

Surprising finding number one: For each emotion, the song group and the animation group chose essentially the same slider positions. Below are clips of the typical “happy” melody and “happy” movement:

…and of the typical “sad” melody and “sad” movement:

Sievers and Wheatley could have published a paper on those results alone, and were planning to. They thought the findings reflected a universal phenomenon in brain organization that would apply to anybody, anywhere. But a few colleagues raised eyebrows. “Musicologists and composers tend to be extremely skeptical of claims of cross-cultural universality,” Sievers says. One musicologist at Dartmouth said, “‘That’s interesting, but I wonder what would happen if you went somewhere else. It probably wouldn’t work’,” Sievers recalls. “I thought he was wrong.” To know for sure, of course, they had to go do it.

Years earlier, Sievers had volunteered for Cambodian Living Arts, an organization that makes archival recordings of folk musicians. He knew the country had many culturally isolated villages, with an agricultural lifestyle that couldn’t be more different from the co-eds in New Hampshire. So in late 2010, Sievers, Wheatley, another graduate student and a translator went to the Ratanakiri Province, near the Vietnam border, and set up shop in a village called L’ak.

Beau, translator Sarun, Thalia, and grad student Carolyn, in L'ak

A few hundred people live in L’ak, and they’re all Kreung, ethnic minorities who used to practice slash-and-burn agriculture and were constantly on the move. Their way of life began to shift in the late 1990s, when large-scale logging operations destroyed the forests they depended on. So some Kreung have settled in L’ak, and are gradually stepping into the modern world.

The Kreung culture (like every known human culture, in fact) plays music, but it’s very different from what we’re used to in the West. Here, a middle C sounds the same whether you’re playing a piano in New York or California. There, no such standardization exists. Kreung instruments are different, too. Sievers’s favorite is the mem, a string instrument played sitting down. “One end of the string is between your toes and the other end goes in your mouth,” Sievers says. “You bow the string with a piece of bamboo or a stick, and your mouth becomes a resonating chamber.”

The researchers made several adjustments to the experiment to make it work in L’ak. Most of the villagers couldn’t read or write and none had experience with computers. So the researchers swapped word labels for pictures and used an external controller with real sliders instead of a computer mouse. The team depended on two translators, one to change English into Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, and a second to change Khmer into the Kreung language. Even then it was tricky. The Kreung have no word for ‘peaceful’, so the translators opted for ‘sngap chet’, which translates to something like ‘still heart’. Despite the cultural divide, the villagers were warm, welcoming and curious. The experiments were completed in about a month.

Which leads to surprising finding number two, and the crux of the new study: For each emotion, the Kreung chose the same slider positions, more or less, as the Dartmouth college kids had. I didn’t quite believe it until I saw the end products. Here’s a comparison of the typical “angry” song made in New Hampshire and L’ak, respectively:

And of “peaceful” movies from New Hampshire (left) and L’ak (right):


The study is only the latest of many to ask how our minds make sense of music, and why we love it so. It’s a messy, controversial and absolutely fascinating subject, as fellow Phenomena contributor (whee!) Carl Zimmer wrote about a couple of years ago. Some scientists say music is just a side show, an evolutionary byproduct of our communicative behaviors that didn’t evolve for any specific, adaptive purpose. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker went so far as to call it “auditory cheesecake,” much to the chagrin of Sievers and Wheatley.

“This idea that music is a frivolous add-on, and is not really serving a purpose, that it’s just a happy coincidence or auditory cheesecake or what have you — it just doesn’t feel right,” Wheatley says. Music is embedded in the rituals of every human culture, she points out, and helps people bond. “There must be something that music is providing for us, that helps us as a social species.”

The new study isn’t going to resolve the debate, but it does point to some intriguing theories. It could be, for instance, that our ancestors first learned to interpret emotion from movement — something that would be useful, say, if you encountered an angry saber-tooth cat. Those same brain systems, finely tuned to detect changes in rhythm and speed, could have also evolved to pick up similar changes in sounds, and later, to intentionally exploit this perceptual system by making music. Rather than waiting around for sounds that just happened to make us feel good or bad, Wheatley says, “we could compose music with the same effects and do so on demand.”

As for Sievers, these themes have made him think about his art, and his future, in a new way. “You know, if you have knowledge about how the human brain works, are you obliged as an artist to act on that knowledge?” he asks. “And once you know that’s what you’re doing when you’re composing music, you gradually become a scientist, right?”

This September, he officially joined Wheatley’s lab to work on a PhD.

56 thoughts on “Why Does Music Move Us So?

  1. As a musician, I am continually interested in the symbiotic relationship between the arts and sciences. I think studies like these serve as prompts for me to expand my outlook on my work and, thereby, enhance it. I look forward to reading more material like this in the future and sharing it with my friends and colleagues.

  2. I studied the philosophy if unity ADVAITA Vedanta , and found that music can uplift or agitate or even depress us , and that always present is universal consciousness and a natural force of 3 qualities , dissolution , action and beauty , so these qualities connect with the same qualities in us , they are universal :-)

  3. I really like your post. I used some of the studies and others in my M.A. thesis and find it fascinating. I had an amazing teacher at the University of Amsterdam: Prof. Dr. Henkjan Honing. He also write an absolutely scientific and exciting blog about music cognition: http://musiccognition.blogspot.de/

  4. Great piece. Great study. Seems on the money. I’ve thought much about this and have become convinced one great evolutionary advantage of human musical ability is to help social groups cohere. Much evidence for this, but I’d submit my kids’ remark that music is better when sung or played with others — and that harmonization of voices is so important (also polyrhythms). See scene in The Music Man where quarelling school board is pacified and becomes barbershop quartet. This notion is consistent with emotional expression theory, since most of these emotions are indeed social.

  5. Tone/tempo of voice convey emotion irrespective of meaning, I can detect a speakers emotions from these even if I don’t know the language. Further Animals seem to recognize emotional content in language just as well as humans so it seems inescapable to me that animal cries convey emotion and that human language evolved from this as an abstract extension of the basic universal language of emotion. Musical instruments are like tone/tempo of voice PUPPETS, an expert can make them seem alive.

  6. It always annoys me when those criticisms are made about the “auditory cheesecake” hypothesis – the mechanism of evolution does not necessarily affect the modern function of the behaviour, and should certainly not affect our appreciation of it. Music might have been identical whether it evolved adaptively or as a spandrel – what matters is the truth, not what sounds appealing in retrospect.

  7. The New Hampshire angry composition reminds me of the opening sequence on piano of the Planet of the Apes movie 1968 composed by Jerry Goldsmith.

  8. This is great, thank you! The connections music has to our brain can not be dismissed. I loved reading Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia and diving in to the brain’s reaction to music. (It was made even better that I read it in orchestra rehearsals while in Austria; I’m a brass player, at and it was a vocal festival! …I had time!).
    Also, most conducting teachers will connect certain physical motions to help convey the music. You could even take someone who doesn’t know the beat patterns, and I’m sure they would still be similar basic movements to a real conductor… basic kinesiology tells us this.
    BUT, I have one issue. I think the researchers were kind of lucky that a given feeling in the US is actually culturally the same for them. What I mean is that they could know what sadness is, but could be trained by their culture to be happy about it. The only example I can think of is a New Orleans funeral. The music might start out as sad, and the mourners are obviously sad, but yet it’s a party celebrating the deceased’s life. Emotions say sadness, but culture says happy. This might be ridiculous, but I think it’s interesting that culturally the emotions are similar too.

  9. Wow, I hadn’t heard of the “auditory cheesecake” argument and find it really interesting. When I was a kid, my sister was working on her Master’s Degree in ethnomusicology at Weslyan University. I remember her telling me she’d learned that children all over the world use the same 5 tones when they want to tease each other. We in the west know it as “nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah” (and we all know the tune), but even when a different word (other than nyah) is used, the musical notes are the same in all parts of the world, and no one knows why. I’m a librarian, so given time I could probably dig up a source for this, but I’m on vacation today!

  10. “Why does a lullaby soothe a newborn, a dirge console the grieving, and a KoRn song make you want to rip your ears out?”

    Korn? Really? Korn is an example of music that makes you want to rip your ears out? Aside from the obvious, that for Korn fans, Korn songs do not make them want to rip their ears out, why Korn? Such an old band. And pretty tame, all things considered.

    Newborns. Why this fascination with newborns? Newborns also prefer mother’s milk to whiskey, too. And soft light to bright. And pablum to habanero peppers. And so forth. It’s because they’re newborns. They don’t have a lot of experience with things. Not all adults like whiskey or bright lights or habaneros. Yes, I know that. Those are simply examples of things that only adults like. Adults are different from infants. You may have noticed this yourself. Drawing conclusions about adults by looking at how infants react seems very peculiar to me.

    “People will choose the same combination of spatiotemporal features — a certain speed, rhythm, and smoothness — whether pairing a particular emotion with a melody or with a cartoon animation, the study found. But most surprising, the results held true in people from two starkly different cultures: a rural village in Cambodia and a college campus in New England.”

    Actually, this was the least surprising thing. If you set people up to do very simple, basic things, if you set up the conditions so that you’re pretty much guaranteed to get the same results, then getting the same results can hardly be called surprising. (Just for the record, none of the sounds or of the animations seemed to match the emotions they were supposed to be illustrating. To me. Which always makes me question not just the methodology but the selection of people upon whom one inflicts the methodology. Other questions may occur to you. 😉

    “…something called electroacoustic music (now called digital musics).”

    Is it now? This will be news to a lot of people I know. Of course, it’s not surprising that a person who would choose Korn as an example of ear outripping would also not know what electroacoustic refers to. And so would be able blithely to make an absurd assertion like this.

    “That afternoon the class heard from a guest lecturer, psychology professor Thalia Wheatley, whose neuroimaging studies had pinpointed some of the brain regions involved in perceiving motion. Other labs had found that some of the very same regions activate during music perception, giving Wheatley the idea that the two skills are somehow linked in the mind. She presented the general hypothesis to Sievers’s class, adding that she hadn’t yet found a rigorous and quantitative way to test it.”

    Still waiting. (There are things in the world that cannot be explained or understood by quantitative testing, rigorous or not!)

    “…participants were asked to tinker with the sliders until they had created a song or movie expressing a specific emotion — angry, happy, peaceful, sad or scared.”

    I cannot think of a more impertinent word to qualify “emotion” in this context than “specific.” OK, maybe “soporific.” Or “injured.” But “specific” is right up there with those for lack of pertinence. But there you are. For someone who can modify the noun “emotion” with the adjective “specific,” it would make perfect sense to use concepts like anger or sadness as if they were quantities.

    “They thought the findings reflected a universal phenomenon in brain organization that would apply to anybody, anywhere.”

    Hey, I just got an idea for a scientific study: it would attempt to answer the question “Why are some scientists so attracted to the idea that there are universal phenomenon in brain organization that would apply to anybody, anywhere?”

  11. I ran across this quote earlier today:

    “The function of music is to release us from the tyranny of conscious thought.”
    – Thomas Beecham.

    I like this quote for the word tyranny especially. It doesn’t mean that we stop thinking when we hear moving music, only that our conscious thoughts are no longer the control center of our being.

    People who have a stroke that impairs the left side of their brain can speak again by singing (because music is a right brain activity). So I conclude the tyranny referred to the tyranny of the left brain. Music releases us from that tyranny because it requires the cooperation of both hemispheres.

  12. The proliferation of studies looking at mind and music need to be more front and center for our global media culture. The power here of consciousness and the connection of emotion, temporal awareness, and abstract and spiritual thought seems to me something that links all of us here on this planet intimately. It is odd too that music is really now the pinnacle art form for all of us and yet we ignore the mystery and power it represents. For what it’s worth, the novel I published this year, Beyond the Will of God, deals with these issues allegorically and metaphorically. It’s free to anyone who wants to signup for it through my website (davidbiddle.net). I truly hope Ms. Hughes continues to report on all the Phenomena surrounding music here.

  13. I use my singing and speaking voice…. as well as digital piano and other small instruments… at the bedsides of the dying. Music and sound soothes, brings people closer together, enlightens, supports the expression of all kinds of emotion, thereby relieving suffering. Very effective medicine, and a very precious resource.

  14. Great post but a bit unsatisfactory towards the end. When I consider what the answer to the title question actually is I am a bit puzzled. You seem to suggest that music is a way to manage our emotions as done in movement. Two gaps there: a) the PNAS study is about emotion recognition not about actually felt emotion; b) this may work for happy movement/music but why would anyone want to know how to compose sad music if it only makes us feel sad?

    Concerning b) I think part of the answer is that musically elicited emotions are somewhat different from real emotions. Not enough space to go into detail but I invite you to check out my thoughts here: http://brainsidea.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/why-do-we-like-sad-music/


  15. Is it just coincidence that root of the word emotion is motion, or that we say we are very moved when we get very emotional? Of course not. I’m seeing now images of mourners, rocking in sorrow, dancers jumping for joy.

  16. Very interesting article. This comment is mostly a reply to Michael Karman’s criticism, but might be constructive for further discussion.

    Whether the connection between music and motion is a true one is an interesting question and should be explored. Although proper skepticism is required in any academic pursuit, blatantly criticizing the article and Sievers’ research is no basis for proper scientific inquiry. One might not agree with the examples put forth by Hughes, or the methods employed by Sievers, but that just begs further inquiry towards a more proper hypothesis. As always, a theory should not be accepted as truth but as a approximation of truth. With research such as Sievers’, it should always raise more questions than it solves.

    What I found interesting is that despite the troubles of language some correlation could be found between expression of emotions. I think the translators did a good job in trying to convey peace as ‘still heart’. Different languages use different terms to denote concepts. Regarding this correlation, I think it would be interesting to see how these results relate to the theories of linguistic relativity and works on emotions such as Roberto Unger’s “Passion”. This is, however, a more qualitative inquiry than a quantitive one.

    In any case, I trust in Sievers’ qualities as an academic since it seems he is not too hasty in publicizing his study. Furthermore I think it too easy and foolish to simply criticize a popular science article regarding such a study. That is just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  17. Wonderful post! So glad I discovered this blog (via Reddit) and will be sharing with all. As a professional music instructor (guitar) I am fascinated with studies into humanities relationship with music. The nature of these experiments is related to conscious responses to music and motion (unless I interpreted incorrectly). I learned of the subconscious connection of sound and music perception by the brain from Music, The Brain, And Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination by Robert Jourdain. Auditory signals are directed to and routed through parts of the brain connected with subconscious physical responses to stimuli. Looking forward to more reading enjoyment here.

  18. I keep thinking about this piece every time someone else comments. What’s amazing to me when I listen to music is that songs elicit emotions that are so much more visceral and overpowering than what I feel in my “walking around” life. Take for example Coldplay’s “Paradise” or Of Monsters and Men’s “Little Talks.” (Hey!). The breadth of feeling is like an intricate, artistic tapestry spinning in the air around me, intertwined with my heart and my mind, taking me far beyond who I really am. I know this is what happens to others. It’s weird that people aren’t astounded by this magic. Totally weird.

  19. I always said that
    music is the language of emotions,
    mathematics is the language of logic,
    and what we speak, is the language of manipulation. :)

  20. I’d like to know what emotion the Cambodians might think KoRn’s music expresses. To my ear it sounds like anger, but I know quite a few younger people who really like it. However, the expressions on their faces when they dance to it reminds me more of anger than anything else.. I suspect our stateside sample might use some other words to describe the emotion evoked by listening to KoRn, but I’ll bet a study would show that they would also sense anger (or the various manifestations of it, such as frustration).

    1. @brandon smith: Well yeah. The lead singer processed his trauma of being raped by his dad in the first albums. Many people like to listen to it, because they are angry, and it helps them process that anger. You know, like a therapist would say: “Let it all out.” That’s what KoRn does, and that’s what their listeners do. It’s also part *feeling* the emotions that come out. A bit like a primal therapy. 😉
      So in a way, it’s like a thunderstorm. The air is always nicest after a thunderstorm. And it is so calm, peaceful and quiet.

      A lot of music, like e.g. metal, The Prodigy, punk, etc, have this aspect.

      So to look down on it, just because you happen to be lucky enough, not to be that hurt and angry, is not right.
      Because of their openness, Korn is actually rather good at their job, if that’s what you need.

      (I can’t say anything about their newer works, since I didn’t follow it in the later years.)

      I hope this helps you understand that type of music. :)

  21. Major and Minor – the Strebetendenz-Theory
    If you want to answer the question, why major sounds happy and minor sounds sad, there is the problem, that some minor chords don’t sound sad. The solution of this problem is the Strebetendenz-Theory. It says, that music is not able to transmit emotions directly. Music can just convey processes of will, but the music listener fills this processes of will with emotions. Similary, when you watch a dramatic film in television, the film cannot transmit emotions directly, but processes of will. The spectator perceives the processes of will dyed with emotions – identifying with the protagonist. When you listen music you identify too, but with an anonymous will now.
    If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will “I don’t want anymore…”. If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will “I don’t want anymore…” with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words “I don’t want anymore…” the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    This operations of will in the music were unknown until the Strebetendenz-Theory discovered them. And therefore many previous researches in psycholgy of music failed. If you want more information about music and emotions and get the answer, why music touches us emotionally, you can download the essay “Vibrating Molecules and the Secret of their Feelings” for free. You can get it on the link:
    Enjoy reading
    Bernd Willimek

  22. @Bernd Willimek: Common misconception. Minor doesn’t sound sad. It sounds melancholic! In the sense of being the broad superset of “sad” that is the opposite of “straight, ordered, clean, clear”.

    And the reason why is very simple: Our brain is a prediction machine. Everything fitting, resonating and being clear feels good, because it hints at us understanding the world. And things not really matching, but being “off”, feels bad, because it feels like a series of non-fitting missteps.

    The same thing exists rhythmically too, in the form of off-beats. And even in terms of amplitude, but I don’t know if it has a name there.
    You can also see it in story lines (experience curves), gameplay mechanics, paintings, and even sports events and generally all forms of well-done education (so not school).

  23. @Bernd Willimek: Your “Strebetendenz” theory sounds like one of those “theories” that use a lot of big word with no real meaning, to obfuscate that they’re actually not based on anything, but applied the scientific method *to* these entirely unscientific meaningless words, as if they were paradigms based on something.

    Which is *typical* for pre-neuropsychology psychology. A pseudoscience for above reasons, that is still taught in universities, even today, and as long as those old “professors” are still there.

    What I posted is based more on actual neurology based on actual physics.

  24. i once was in an art studio and a student brought her cockateel to the class. She sang a little song and the bird bobbed his head to the melody and swayed.Later I happened to break into a hungarian boot slap dance and the bird went wild with movements to the rythem and clapping – his wings flapped to it, his feet moved, head bob and turn and he punctuated with wild trill at just the right places. 45 minutes later I walked by the door of the class- he saw me and began his dance- I ran in and joined with mind and his trills began with his flaps and steps and bobbs! He saw me and put it to the memory. I am a painter/dancer- and have many
    fine experiences with painting live at a symphony or Jazz festival. Peoplerespond with “I never new sounds have color or shapes – EXCITING for them to experience music so fully while in their seats. I prefera floor, a canvas to liseen dance and paint at the same time. At 65 it still energises me or days.

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  26. My own uneducated thought is that poetry and music came before prose and exposition, just as ornament came before clothing. What better way to tell about the latest hunt/childbirth/water-search than to act it out, with motion, sound effects, and rhythm?

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