Why does music make you emotional?

The songs, melodies, or tones that give a person goosebumps vary from person to person. Everyone has their own experiences with music and their own personality. Context and culture also play a role. For example, in Eastern countries, music often has different tones and rhythms than in Western countries.

From an evolutionary perspective, music is viewed as a means of communication. We can express ourselves emotionally through music. We can feel connected to others by listening to or making music.

Music not only arouses emotion, but can also encourage action. For example, agricultural workers who till the land with a hand plow often do so in a certain rhythm. This motivates and supports the movements they make. Music can also motivate exercise, but it can also help people with Parkinson's disease move. Patients can become stiff, making it impossible for them to start walking. Certain rhythms can ensure that someone makes the first move. Music is an external stimulus for them. People who have difficulty expressing themselves verbally, for example because of a stroke, can sometimes do this better after music therapy or by singing what they have to say.

The fact that music can affect us emotionally is partly because similar processes occur in our brain as they do during other emotional events. For example, the amygdala and a number of surrounding structures are activated when we listen to music. The amygdala is an important part of the brain for processing emotions. There are also other ways that music affects our bodies. For example, your heart rate can decrease or increase depending on the music.

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Finally, our memory also plays a role. We often hear music during crucial events in our lives. For example during weddings or when loved ones die. We also listen to a lot of music during puberty, for example when we first fall in love. When we hear that music again, we remember those emotional moments and thus evoke feelings.

The fact that music evokes emotions and communication is used, among other things, in music therapy. Music is used in many ways to help people with psychological complaints, and is tailored to what the person needs at that moment. For example, people with dementia may experience internalizing restlessness. Some aspects of music — such as a slow tempo — can make it more calming. Music therapy is often more accessible than treatments that require you to talk to a therapist. It can be a way to reach young people who don't want to, for example. Making or listening to music can be a first step in talking about what they've been through.

Susan van Houren is Professor of Clinical Psychology at the Open University in Heerlen. She conducts research in music therapy, among other things. Science journalist Anouk Berchett asked her this question and she wrote her answer.

Megan Vasquez

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