How does music make us feel emotions?

80,000 years ago, when that scenario played out, the people who could imagine what would come next, whose brains and bodies responded to the rustling grasses the right way did not get eaten, and survived to reproduce. In today’s world, we have learned not just to detect the lion, but to artificially recreate the experience, for fun. Whether it’s a roller-coaster, a movie, or a symphony, we are pretty good at pushing our own buttons in a safe place where the risk of getting killed is practically zero.

Our ancestors had a cognitive bias with a great evolutionary advantage. Those who heard a rustle in the grass and thought, “that’s just the grass rustling. No big deal” were more likely to get eaten. But those who heard a rustle and thought, “OMG! A lion! — Run for your life!” survived to have a chance to reproduce.

What does the brain do when it assumes there is a lion in the grass? It constructs almost instantly and unconsciously a scenario of danger that gets us out of there as fast as possible, or prepares us to fight.

Our brains have a highly developed prediction engine. We are extremely good at judging what will come next, whether it’s shooting a basketball into a net, driving a car, or listening to jokes, our low-level prediction engine is constantly on and makes it possible to survive, to avoid such dangers as lions, speeding cars, tripping down the stairs, and lame jokes.

That highly beneficial prediction engine is hijacked by music. We have found a weird bug that actually makes us ascribe agency to sounds well beyond rustling grass. In fact, we have figured out how to create sounds that mimic the internal mental experiences of feelings like hope, despair, and exuberance, or even of physical movement like running, slowing down, and dying breaths — as in this famous orchestral tone poem by Richard Strauss, “Death and Transfiguration.”

Now imagine that, instead of rustling grass, we heard distinct, slow, soft, lion-like footsteps? This couldn’t possibly be just the wind. And now the running sounds begin. It’s loud, fast and getting closer. The lion can’t afford to keep still or it will lose its dinner. The likelihood that it’s a lion is now near 100%. And so your need to get ready to run is great. You need adrenaline. You need fear.

How are we able to do this? We make millions of possible predictions based on what we’re seeing and hearing, but also based on what our body is doing. Our hairs on our neck raise. Adrenaline pumps, heart rate increases, pupils dilate … all of these provide information and “input” to the brain that is furiously creating and pruning predictions to home in on what’s most likely. Not just what’s most likely to be true, but what’s most likely to save us from being eaten.

Book cover: How Emotions are Made, by Lisa Feldman Barrett
Book cover: How Emotions are Made, by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Lisa Feldman Barrett. “How Emotions Are Made.”

Check out this book on Apple Books:

What if those lion-paw sounds you heard were not a lion at all, but your little sister pretending to be a lion stalking you? And what if that lion-mimicking was woven into a musical performance? Thrilling! But also safe. Playing and making art helped build and reinforce predictions, allowing them to rise to the level of bona fide concepts.

The feature that conferred a great survival advantage to us has led us to create all sorts of things, from religion to art, like cave paintings showing the hunting of animals, and movies, to which we ascribe not only agency, but actual personhood, like Harry Potter.

By putting sounds together in certain ways, some creative people have figured out how to take advantage of our innate propensity to form and prune predictions, ascribe them agency, and believe them. People who are very good at doing this in ways that also trigger emotions are folks we call artists, actors, composers, and musicians.

Music has been exploiting this propensity a very long time. People have been making music for at least 60,000 years. In that time we have learned how to do much, much more than fool you into thinking you are going to be eaten by a lion. We can “fool” you into feeling nostalgia, love, hope, desire, tenderness, fear, exhilaration, calm, anger, and many, many more. And we can do any of those things without using a word of language.

But to say we are being “fooled” is still not quite right. While, yes, the external inputs (musical sounds) are artificial, and designed to produce an experience, our brains are doing just what they always do, and doing it quite well. They are creating very real experiences with very real emotions.

The experience of sadness or fear while listening to music is real. It is not that the music merely represents those emotions. It foments them. It causes our brains to create them. And we do feel them. We do not perceive the music as having those emotions. We don’t hear music as “signifying” those emotions. We actually feel them, because we create them in much the same we we create them in real life.

What more could music do?

Could music not just create, but also transform those experiences so that our sense of time itself is altered … and so that our most fundamental, default human stance of you being “inside” your body and the rest of the universe being outside of it, is altered in such a way that we actually experience a different level of reality beyond the day-to-day default?

Having such experiences reveals that the normal, default mode is in fact just a mode, and not the only mode. We can actually experience a different perspective on reality—not just learn of it, as measured by and confirmed via science, presented as a conclusion to be believed or not. We can live and directly experience a moment where the default stance — the duality of us and world “out there” — is blurred, suppressed, and replaced with an alternate experience.

In this moment, the nature of our conscious experience would go beyond what those old phenomenologists thought was immutable truth. We can have a consciousness of no particular thing, with no “object of our consciousness,” which implies there is also a subject in the conscious experience, too. Instead of an experience structured as “I” situated in the world being “conscious of” some thing, we simply have “conscious experience.”

Perhaps because the “object” of this sort of experience, when it comes about via music, is our own “internal” emotions, we don’t ascribe to them the quality of being “out there in the world.” And so, during that experience, our default distinction between the world out there and the world in here is suppressed. This is the same sort of experience that is being championed by some psychologists who treat patients with hallucinogenic mushrooms. Can that experience can be produced by music alone?

The next time you listen to music and have strong feelings, marvel at the accomplishment of our tens of thousands of years of development, of the countless artists and music-makers who gradually honed and tamed sounds so they can pierce our inner life and create powerful, and deeply moving experiences. Maybe at some point in the next 60,000 years music will be able to produce experiences that take us beyond our perspective and let us directly experience a higher level of reality. Perhaps that time is now. In any case, the next time you listen to music, don’t worry. Let yourself get caught up in it and feel the emotions. There’s virtually no chance you’ll get eaten.

Images: Unsplash

Designer and musician. Former student of Leonard Bernstein and Sergiu Celibidache.

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