This summer, I traveled to Montreal to do one of my favorite things: Listen to live music.
For three days, I wandered around the Montreal Jazz Festival with two buddies, listening to jazz, rock, blues and all kinds of surprising musical mashups.
All of this reminded me how magnificent music has been in my life — growing up with The Boss in New Jersey, falling in love with folk-rockers like Neil Young, discovering punk rock groups like The Clash in college, and, yeah, these days, marveling at Taylor Swift.
Music could always lift me up and transport me. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to having a religious experience.
The body and brain on music
This got me thinking: Why? Why does music do that?
So I called up some experts to get their insights on what underlies this powerful experience.
“Music does evoke a sense of wonder and awe for lots of people,” says Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill University who scans the brains of people while they listen to tunes.
“Some of it is still mysterious to us,” he says, “But what we can talk about are some neural circuits or networks involved in the experience of pleasure and reward.”
When you’re listening to music that you really like, brain circuits involving parts of the brain called the amygdala, ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens come on line, he explains. These are the same areas that get activated if you’re thirsty and you have a drink, or if you’re feeling “randy and have sex.”
That triggers the production of brain chemicals that are involved in feelings like pleasure.
“It modulates levels of dopamine, as well as opioids in the brain. Your brain makes opioids,” he says.
Neurons in the brain even fire with the beat of the music, which helps people feel connected to one another by literally synchronizing their brain waves when they listen to the same song.
“What we used to say in the ’60s is, ‘Hey, I’m on the same wavelength as you man,'” Levitin says. “But it’s literally true — your brain waves are synchronized listening to music.”
Music also has a calming effect, slowing our heart rate, deepening our breathing and lowering stress hormones. This makes us feel more connected to other people as well as the world around us, especially when we start to dance together.
“Those pathways of changing our body, symbolizing what is vast and mysterious for us, and then moving our bodies, triggers the mind into a state of wonder,” Dacher Keltner, a University of California, Berkeley, psychologist, told me.
“We imagine, ‘Why do I feel this way? What is this music teaching me about what is vast and mysterious?’ Music allows us to feel these transcendent emotions,” he says.
Emotions like awe, which stimulates the brain into a sense of wonder, help “counter the epidemic of our times, which is loneliness,” Keltner says. “With music, we feel we’re part of community and that has a direct effect on health and well-being,” which is crucial to survival.
That could be why music plays such a powerful role in many religions, spirituality and rituals, he says.
A rocker weighs in
All this made me wonder: Do musicians feel this way, too?
“Yeah, I definitely experience wonder while playing music on a regular basis,” says Mike Gordon, the bass player for the band Phish.
He suddenly vividly remembers dreams and doesn’t want to be anywhere else, he says.
“It’s almost like these neural pathways are opening. And it’s almost like the air around me crystalizes where everything around me is more itself,” Gordon says. “I develop this sort of hypersensitivity, where it’s now electrified.”