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Musical Space

Musical Space: Music is a Chemical


A lot of thought goes into making and explaining music, but I can’t come up with an intellectual reason for why we actually like it. There is a compelling unintellectual reason, though, and that is body chemistry.

Science has found that music affects us because of our hormones. Research has found that our brains produce the neurotransmitter dopamine in response to music.

Dopamine, along with opioids like endorphin, are tied to the brain’s reward system. Anticipating and then hearing music gives us a shot of chemical pleasure, just like when eating chocolate, taking cocaine, or being in love. It’s a feeling of euphoria and serenity. Dopamine reinforces learned behavior; it drives addictions, obsessions, and playing the same album over and over.

Other hormones are affected by music, too. Cortisol, the “stress” hormone, is reduced; serotonin - the “happiness” one is increased. Oxytocin, the one that keeps us social, gets a boost, and since music is tied to our mating rituals, those hormones are involved as well.

Human survival has hinged on our hormonal compulsions - evolution favors getting pleasure from food and sex, which in turn keep our species alive. So, why also music? There must be a societal benefit; people that sing and dance together are likely to care about each other’s well being. I think we have proof here that music is necessary for the future of humanity.


Listening list - music about the power of music:

Morphine, “Cure For Pain,” Cure For Pain, 1993


Bill Withers “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” Just As I Am, 1971
Highest rated song on a Subreddit about goosebumps
Recorded with members of Booker T and the MGs, Stephen Stills on guitar


Velvet Underground, “Rock and Roll,” Loaded, 1970

“...her life was saved by Rock and Roll”


Madonna, “Music,” Music, 2000


“Music makes the people come together.”


Sly and the Family Stone, “Dance to the Music,” Dance To The Music, 1968


Pharrell Williams, “Happy,” Girl 2013