How Does Music Move Us?

Apr 29, 2016

We’re turning things around! Instead of you sending us the question, this time we’re asking the question and looking to you for some answers. We wanted to explore why music moves us.

Sometimes it makes you feel like moving physically — wiggling, spinning, shaking and shimmying. And sometimes it moves you emotionally — makes you feel happiness or sadness or it brings back a strong memory.

"Why does music move us? Why does it make us feel feelings?"

But why does music make us feel all the feels? When you listen to music, it goes straight to your brain. Music triggers action in the amygdala, one of the centers in our brains tied to emotion.

And it also makes your brain release dopamine, a chemical that’s associated with pleasure. That kind of explains why music can make you so happy that you just can’t resist bopping your head and wiggling your body. In fact, music interacts with a lot of parts of our brains, and scientists are still discovering all the various ways we are connected to music — why it can so easily trigger memories, for example.

We asked Chris Dorman, founder of Music For Sprouts, a music and movement program for children and families, for some of his thoughts on music.

Chris Dorman is the founder of Music For Sprouts, a music and movement program for young children and their families.
Credit courtesy Chris Dorman

“I know that music moves us physically," Dorman told But Why. "I wonder if maybe it’s because the sound waves actually move through our bodies. Our bodies are permeable to the waves, the vibrations. Emotionally, the lyrics of a song can connect us to thoughts or ideas or aspirations, that’s things that we want to see happen, things that we want to do.

"They can connect us to memories, things that have already happened, things that we long for. And then the melody, the actual sound, when you hear that you can almost feel yourself making that sound, that expression.

“Have you ever been walking down the street? Say you have your headphones on and a song with a real strong beat, you look around and the scene that was once chaotic falls into that rhythm. It almost helps you connect to the rest of the world around you.

“I also like to think there is a bit of mystery in it. One of my great joys is that I’ll start to play a song for kiddos and it’s got a real strong beat and all of a sudden I see one-and-a-half-year-olds' knees start to bounce or a toddler start to lift his feet off the ground. And before you know it we’re all jumping. It makes me want to jump too.”

"Music can remind people, can remind you what you've done before in your past. You can listen to some old music and think about that time ... You can have a bad mood and music makes you feel better." — Seny Daffe, Jeh Kulu Drum and Dance Theater

In this episode we also talk with musician Seny Daffe.

He moved to Vermont from Guinea several years ago and now helps lead classes in African drumming and dance with Jeh Kulu Drum and Dance Theater.

“A long time ago, many hundred years ago, we didn’t have electricity in Africa, or phones," says Daffe. "The communication used to be an instrument, the krin.

Nine-year-old Emmerson Stapleton is learning to play the violin. When she gets older she hopes to play with the Vermont Youth Orchestra.
Credit Melody Bodette / VPR

"I think music can remind people, can remind you what you’ve done before in your past.

"You can listen to some old music and think about that time. It can remind you.

"You can have a bad mood and music makes you feel better.”

Listen to the full episode to hear lots of music, plus thoughts sent in by our listeners.

We’ll also hear from young violinist Emmerson Stapleton on what it’s like to learn to play an instrument.

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