Why does music evoke certain emotions, even if it doesn’t have lyrics?

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Gabriel Byczynski

Birmingham, UK

Music is a wide-reaching stimulus for humans, activating many regions of our brain. Even without lyrics, the melodies and rhythms of music have a big impact.

When listening to classical music, we may feel relaxed when a chord meets its climax, happy when the pitches of notes remind us of emotions or old memories and scared as the brain’s amygdala region becomes active and releases stress and anxiety hormones.

Talia Morris

Cape Tribulation, Queensland, Australia

I think that, in some societies at least, people are trained to associate certain emotions with particular types of music by movies and television, because of the formulaic way it is frequently used in them: violins for sad scenes; loud, dramatic orchestral music with lots of percussion for battle scenes; etc. It would be interesting to see whether people with limited exposure to such media have similar emotional responses to the same music.

Betty Tijms & Jochum van’t Hooft

Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Music possibly predates language as we know it today. Our pre-linguistic hominin ancestors may have used musical features, such as pitch, rhythm and timbre, to communicate intentions and emotions. From an evolutionary point of view, these musical features carry an emotional value that may be essential for survival. This would explain why music without lyrics can evoke strong emotions.

Daniel Forth

Falkirk, UK

Music has tone and rhythm, much like the human voice. We use this to interpret a speaker’s emotions, not just their words. This is why Dos Uruguayas is so effective at provoking tears in the English version of the Disney film Encantoeven if you don’t speak Spanish.

Sarah Pascoe

Bournemouth, Dorset, UK

The musicality of vocalisation is the real communicator across cultures, species and the world, not the words. The neuroscience of “affective prosody”, the musicality of spoken language, reveals the circuits involved: these are parts of the brain known to underpin emotional processing and perception, including the thalamus, the basal ganglia and the cingulate, temporal and frontal cortices.

Just as hearing verbal threats or loving invitations evoke different responses in us, when songs use similar musicality, our brains receive and perceive them similarly. Film and TV composers utilise our reactions to these sounds. Think of how different the soundtracks are for comedy films compared with horror ones.

The words we speak can be less informative and reliable than the music in our message. “Come here…” can be anything from seductive to threatening, and telling a pet it is “a bad dog” in the affectionate tones used for “good doggy” demonstrates the power of prosody.

Bryn Glover

Ripon, North Yorkshire, UK

I would like to respond to this question with a plea rather than an answer.

I was fortunate to have been taught to appreciate music at school, learning first how to listen to Má Vlast by Bedάich Smetana, then taking in Fingal’s Cave by Felix Mendelssohn and Antonín Dvořák’s “New World” symphony. But this appreciation ended abruptly when experiments in physics classes came to the fore in my education.

I found myself challenging the “silliness”, as I saw it, of absorbing uncritically what were no more than vibrations of the air. I regret to say that this state of affairs persisted for some years. Later in life, I started making violins as a hobby and switched back to an uncritical enjoyment of the beauty of their output, bitterly regretting the lost years.

I would suggest that the person who posed this question should end their attempt to analyse what is going on, and instead lie back and allow those glorious noises to continue to inspire them.

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