Why Does Music Sound Good?
Listening to your favorite song is one of the many pleasures of life. But have you ever wondered why music sounds good?
Recent research might have some clues that could explain why listening to music feels incredible. Listening to music is linked to a release of dopamine—a neurotransmitter that makes you feel satisfied.
However, our personal musical tastes and culture play a large role in what types of music sounds good to us, and these are incredibly subjective from person to person.
Music Can Trigger a Positive Response in Your Brain
You may not realize it, but music can impact your brain in a good way. According to a study published in 2001, music can activate a specific part of your brain that’s responsible for rewarding your body with the “feel-good” hormone, or dopamine.
Yup, you guessed it, it’s the very same chemical that your body releases after having sex or eating a delicious meal. But why exactly do our brains give as much weight to music as food or sex? After all, food and sex are part of human nature and a sign of survival, as opposed to some jams that don’t affect our well-being.
To date, there’s limited evidence on why listening to music activates the limbic and paralimbic regions in our brains. There are a couple of theories, though, the most famous of which is Leonard Meyer’s postulation on how music and emotions correlate.
When we listen to music, our brains start building up expectations. When such expectations turn out to be accurate, we get a good dose of dopamine released in our brains. On the contrary, when predictions don’t match reality, we get frustrated, but we continue listening to music anyway.
But why do we keep on listening to music if there’s no guarantee that our expectations will be accurate? The answer is pretty straightforward: it’s because we get addicted to the game itself, which is all about making predictions and anticipating whether or not they’ll happen.
When you watch a football match, you don’t know whether your team is going to win or not. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop you from supporting it. The same concept applies to music.
What Makes Music Sound Good or Bad?
While many of us love listening to music, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all of us enjoy it the same way. Music may sound good or bad, depending on several variables. Sometimes, it’s all about your taste, but it’s not the only factor that comes into play.
Is It Striking the Wrong Chord?
When a group of notes sounds good together, they are consonant. On the other hand, dissonant notes sound plain awful for a lot of people. Sometimes a chord progression just simply sounds subjectively bad to our ear. There’s a fine line between consonant and dissonant music.
The reason behind that isn’t clearly understood. Maybe it’s just how our brains are wired or a byproduct of cultural significance (more on that later).
The history of the consonant vs. dissonant music dilemma dates back to antiquity, specifically during the 5th-4th century BC. Pythagoras of ancient Greece is credited for being the first philosopher to propose a theory related to musical intervals. He came up with what we know today as Pythagorean intervals.
Despite all that, the perception of dissonant music is still debatable. A study of how the indigenous people of The Tsimané, an Amazonian ethnic group, perceive raucous music revealed some interesting findings. The most important of which was that they liked both consonant and dissonant music equally.
One theory that could explain this phenomenon is that the people of The Tsimané were never exposed to western music. It was also revealed that, despite the remarkable impact of culture on music tastes, people with the same cultural background could have different music tastes.
This is primarily due to the cumulative experiences that each individual goes through, within which the cultural background plays a major role.
How Does Culture or Genre Impact This?
Music is glued up to our cultures. Each culture has a distinctive style of music. Your cultural background can significantly influence how good a specific song, genre, or style sounds to you.
Here’s how cultural identity and music relate to each other:
Music Structures Vary Greatly Across Cultures
The structure is a key element of music. Certain note combos may sound enjoyable to a Westerner, but for a person from the Middle East, things get a bit different. Another example is that Western music uses chords, whereas Indian music doesn’t have a chord system at all.
Some scientists believe that certain biological roots could explain why music structure preferences vary from one culture to another. Another theory suggests that consonance could be linked to the influence of western music.
People Like Music Within Their Preferred Genres
Many people love music, but that doesn’t mean everyone will love every genre the same way. Some people like to listen to pop music because it’s easy to sing along to, while others love heavy metal music for its intense, fast-paced nature.
It’s no secret that if you enjoy a specific music genre, your musical tastes tend to gravitate to artists and songs within that genre.
On top of that, some genres are related to each other one way or another. When a song has a similar style or structure to the songs from your favorite genre, you’ll probably enjoy listening to it.
Music in the Community or Society
Music can play a big role in communities and societies. It plays a notable role in how different generations relate to each other. This is especially true when specific music genres are tied to cultural identity.
Language in Music
Although music is a universal language, lyrics certainly aren’t always understandable by everyone due to language barriers. Nevertheless, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t enjoy foreign language music, even if you’re unfamiliar with that language. You could simply like a song for its structure, rhythm, or beat. In fact, not understanding the language may make you focus more on the music directly.
Does Music Sound Better When It’s Loud?
Music can often be perceived as “better” when it’s louder.
Our Psychology and Evolution Prioritizes Louder Sounds
Louder sounds catch our attention far more than quieter sounds. It’s hardwired into our brain as a survival mechanism. We are simply more interested in louder sounds, and we can be easily fooled into thinking a song is better as a result of this.
You Can Hear the Sound More Clearly
When you play your favorite songs loudly, you’ll be able to clearly hear every tiny detail. Many songs are just too complex to be fully heard at low volumes, so you need to raise the volume to fully appreciate them. Music often contains many different background effects and sounds that are very difficult to hear when music is played at a low volume.
You Can “Feel” the Music
Playing loud songs will literally make you feel the music. From bass sub frequencies to beat drops and rhythms, it’s a whole new level of euphoria that quiet music just can’t achieve.
You’re Immersed in the Music, Away From Distractions
Listening to loud music blocks out the outside world. No matter what’s going around you, your brain will only recognize the intense emotions that loud music induces.
The Loudness War
Because music sounds better when it’s loud, producers started competing on who makes the louder music in what’s widely known as The Loudness War. However, things have reached a point where aggressively increasing the audio levels actually does more harm than good. This is primarily because it can negatively affect the recording’s quality.
Neuroscientists believe that music can trigger very clear positive responses in our brains. As a result of this, music is cemented in our emotions, thoughts, memories, and feelings. However, the context of when, why, and how this happens is still not fully understood, especially when we take the cultural context and personal tastes into account.