There is a special appeal about watching music being played live. Our brains detect patterns in the music and suspense is created. We try to predict the rhythm as it moves, not unlike a living entity. Here’s what neuroscience has to say about why live music is so irresistible to the brain.
When we listen to music, the reward systems in the brain begin to release dopamine. Dopamine is one of the brain’s notorious feel-good chemicals. It brings the kind of delight that you feel when you are expecting something good, even if you don’t quite know in what package that goodness will arrive. This explains, in a fairly straight forward manner, the universal human appreciation of music. But where exactly in the brain the added appeal of live music rests is not quite as clear.
Its not all about dopamine…
Scientists now believe that music, as compared to random collections of sound, is by its very definition, something that our brains perceive to be created by other human beings. This is why musical rhythms are often described as being a universal “language”. What this means is that even though we frequently enjoy music in private, it is in fact a fundamentally social experience. When the musicians themselves are live and present, the interchange of meaning that music offers seems to magnify.
The Social Theory of Music
A number of recent findings support this “social” theory of music. First off, melody-making exists in all human cultures and societies around the world. This suggests that somehow, our ability to pick up a tune is biologically necessary. Even if the harmonies and acoustics don’t appeal to you personally, studies have found that your brain will release dopamine nonetheless.
Listening to a piece of music sets off a whole cascade of events. Pupils dilate, blood rushes to the muscles and the cerebellum, a region in the sub-cortex associated with balance and action, buzzes to life. This is called “motor resonance”. Your brain behaves ‘as if’ your body is making the rhythm itself.
Tempos and drops so central to melody set up a cycle of suspense and anticipation. Our brain’s detect a pattern and we use this information to try and predict what will come next. The process of trying to predict in turn likely tricks our brain into thinking that the music itself is a kind of living entity, an “intentional agent”.
All these effects are exaggerated by seeing the performing artists (the actual intentional agent) because of a specialised group of neurons called mirror neurons. Like the term suggests, these specialised brain cells light up to mimic what they see. When you watch the guitarist strumming with his right hand, the region in your own brain that controls your right-hand fingers becomes activated. You get the tiniest glimpse of what it feels like to be playing the instrument, but at a level far below your conscious awareness.
In this way, watching live music literally reaches into you. You may be sitting back quietly in your chair, but it feels like a collaborative process. It is the perfect proxy for cultural immersion. Checking out live music is therefore top of many travellers lists of things to do.
Check out this TedX video by Rachel Claudio… “How can a song – written by a perfect stranger – feel as if it were written about you?”