What Makes Music So Special?

From the 40,000-year-old bone flutes found in German caves to today’s pop hits and hip-hop beats, neuroscientists, musicologists, and psychologists have long debated what is it about music that gives us pleasure and makes it so special. The answer seems to be complex and multifaceted, but a consensus is emerging about the basic functions of music: its ability to evoke emotion, elicit social connection, help people learn and remember, and provide a form of escapism.

Researchers have identified a variety of musical functions through questionnaires and other methods. Some of these have been directly related to music’s presumed evolutionary roots, while others are grounded in cognitive psychology, aesthetics, or personality or cultural psychology. Furthermore, a wide range of methodologies has been used in these empirical studies, from open-ended surveys and interviews to more statistically driven approaches such as factor analyses or cluster analyses. As a result, the number of possible musical functions is enormous, even without considering the possibility that some of these might be derived from more fundamental dimensions of the nature of music itself.

A fundamental aspect of music is its structure. A melodic line can be considered the seed that sprouts into a song’s overall meaning and feeling, such as happiness or sadness. It is also a container that helps bind the lyrics together into a coherent whole. The structure of a melody is so important that without it, songs can fail to convey their intended purpose.

The second defining element is timbre, or the sound of a piece of music. This is determined by what pitches are played and in what order. For example, a musical scale contains intervals that are either perfect (as in a tonic or fifth) or imperfect (as in a second or eighth). The larger the interval between two pitches, the higher the pitch. In fact, there is no such thing as a perfectly perfect interval; even the tonic and octave are not pure, but only by virtue of an inversion of the pitch.

Music is often described as polytonic, because it consists of multiple tones that are played together in a way that sounds harmonious rather than random. A simple tone, such as that produced by the human voice or a musical instrument, would sound monotonic and dull, like a 1990s ringtone or an oscillating circuit attached to a speaker built by a high school physics class (not that I’m judging).

The last defining characteristic of music is rhythm. It is a way that musicians can express themselves and communicate emotions through the beat of the drum or the rhythm of a singer’s voice. It is this element of music that makes it feel more like a human language, and the reason why many people find it easy to connect with other humans through songs. For example, during the lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, nothing helped families and friends stay connected and break down the sense of isolation as much as singing or listening to music.