Happiness: A Theory — Happiness and Music

What is the relationship between music and happiness?  Is music a construct within our brains, like colors?  What is going on when something good happens, and we celebrate by playing a favorite song?  What about when we are bittersweet, or upset? 

“Music appears to mimic some of the features of language and to convey some of the emotions that vocal communication does, but in a nonreferential and nonspecific way.  It also invokes some of the same neural regions that language does, but far more than language, music taps into primitive brain structures involved with motivation, reward and emotion,” says Dan Levitin, in his work, This is Your Brain on Music.

Humans and parrots appear to be among the few – perhaps the only – species who sway in time to music, that is, dance.  Could it be that the synchronization of body and sound inherent in dancing is a precursor to human-type speech?  Consider how we anticipate the coming of the next beat in a popular song or symphony.  Consider how a seemingly misplaced beat creates interest, almost like an unexpected response to a conversational question.  If we observe the conversations of others, we may detect a chopped quality, as each participant anticipates the thinking of the other, and sentences sublimate into a series of benign ripostes. 

Just as a listening ear helps us to feel heard, a synchronous composition may help our mood to secure tenancy in the universe.

What is going on when we hear a song that delights us, even though we are hearing it for the first time?  One of music’s attributes is to provide us with predictable parameters, such as timing, instrumentation, and the like, while offering us the novelty of a new voice, tune, or choreography.  The novelty may cause a dopamine boost, even as the familiar latticework offers the predictable flow of a conversation.

“If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it,” said Isadora Duncan.  If life itself is a dance, for a social species like ours, small wonder, then, that we strive for the deflections – and reflections – that music provides.


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