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If You Think Music Is Just an Entertainment, You're Living in a Nutshell

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We have all been in this situation. You’re in some bar or club, the is loud, you’re not in the mood to dance. But while the track plays, you notice your fingers tapping, or your head nodding, or your knees bending to the music. To wallflower guy like me, it can cause all kinds of awkwardness.

But why is this? Why can something inherently artificial like music, especially electronic music, cause an almost unconscious physical reaction in people? And also why dance? What benefits does it have? These are questions that have been in my mind a lot lately, so, I began to explore.

When we’re tapping our fingers, something’s happening in our brains.

What is interesting, is that dancing seems to appear in many cultures, without influence from each other. Culture X may have a totally different musical style from culture Y, yet they may at times find themselves moving to the rhythm of their music.

Consider the different kinds of First Nation tribal dances, and European forms, though different in style and motive, they generally form the same function and basically boil down to rhythmic moving to music. Going back thousands of years, there was even a dance culture in ancient Egypt.[1] Dancing then is totally human.

You don’t need to look far to see more evidence of this, babies, with no real cultural expectation or conditioning dance to music (though…not very well).

On a deeper level, scientists have found that music stimulates certain regions of the brain, particularly the Ventral Striatum, and the Orbitofrontal Cortex.[2] These parts of the brain are key regions generating pleasure, emotional responses and rewarding them. Interestingly these parts of the brain are more stimulated if you like certain songs.

There are some suggestions that motor regions of our brain are also attuned to this, and also that motor regions of the brain are somewhat triggered when we see others moving. So you may be more likely to dance when others are around you dancing. It is understood that the body derives pleasure from movement. So when this is combined with the subconscious pleasure also got from music, you essentially get double the pleasure response.

Music is a combination of rhythm and melody. (But we know it’s more than that.)

Deep down all music is creatively arranged vibrations.[3] These vibrations arranged in pitch, tempo, rhythm, harmony, and melody.[4] Different instruments and the human voice form these vibrations differently, but fundamentally, music is sound, and sound is vibration.

But this kind of explanation takes all the fun out of it.

Pointing out that the Mona Lisa is bits of color on a canvas, or that John Coltrane was just really good at manipulating vibrations, doesn’t explain why millions of people go to the Louve gallery specifically to see the Mona Lisa or why Coltrane was one of the best Jazz (Jazz of course originating as a fusion of multiple international musical styles) performers of all time.[5]

There is something else.

Music is more than just a form of entertainment.

Generally we consider music either a mere form of , something brought and used like a good film or video game. At best we see music as just an art form, perhaps the cooler, more popular cousin (who gets invited to all the good parties) of literature.

However I would go so far to say that music is closer to a form of communication, one that exceeds all cultural boundaries.

For example, I admit it, I am a really into folk and roots music. Lately I’ve been listening to the Norwegian folksinger Siri Nielsen, her voice is angelic….and I have no idea what she is singing about. If I pick up a book published in a language I can’t read (which is pretty much all languages) then it is inaccessible. But this is not the case with music.

All cultures throughout history have had some form of musical culture. This is a nice idea, the next time you listen to your favorite band, or a good piece of music, you’re involved in an activity that humans have done throughout all history.

And maybe the creation of music is to change people’s mood and mind.

People have been trying to answer that answer for centuries. Charles Darwin for example proposed that music was invented as a kind of sophisticated come on, like some animal mating ritual. This makes sense as the majority of popular music are love songs, or straight up unambiguously about sex.[6]

Another popular theory, the theory I personally agree with, was that music was created as a way to form social groups.[7] We often see music now as an individual experience.

We’re used to being by ourselves, blasting out our favorite song. Thanks to headphones, we can be surrounded by people, but be the only one to hear music. Because of this, it is easy to forget, that prior to the invention and popularity of recorded sound, the only way to listen to music was to hear it live.

We still love the social aspect of music, we can hear our favorite band in perfect sound quality for a fraction of the price, but few would ever say that listening to an MP3 is a better experience than seeing the band live.

This is why we love music and dancing, it is the total humanity of it. Our core biology reacts and gives us pleasure from the music we love, and the music we love brings us together. This is something music has always done, and always will do, and why music matters.

Infographic credit: FineMinds

Featured photo credit: Stocksnap via stocksnap.io

Reference

[1] University of Birmingham: Communication Through Music in Ancient Egyptian Religion
[2] Scientific American: Why do we like to dance–And move to the beat?
[3] Psychology Today: What is Music Exactly?
[4] mfiles: What is music?
[5] The New York Times: The Prehistory of Jazz The Africanization of American Music
[6] BBC: Is Music Really All About Sex?
[7] National Geographic: Why Did Humans Invent Music?

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