To Ask, What Is Music?

To ask ‘what is music?’ may well be one way of asking ‘what is man?’” writes George Steiner in Real Presences. Human beings value their own and others’ music, whether it be European classical, North American rock or African drumming. The reason for this valuing is a great mystery.

Five McGill University researchers have discovered some facts about our response to music which explain, if not the importance we place on it, at least its popularity.

Wired up to PET (positron emission tomography) and fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), participants in the experiment listened to the pieces they themselves had chosen as the music that moved them most deeply. The findings “indicate that intense pleasure in response to music can lead to dopamine release in the striatal system … Our results help to explain why music is of such high value across all human societies.”

The neurotransmitter dopamine generates a pleasurable feeling, reinforcing activities that ensure our survival as a species. It gets released not only when we eat and have sex, but in anticipation of those activities. The researchers discovered that anticipating the pleasure of listening led to a dopamine release down a different pathway from the pathway used when experiencing the pleasure itself.

The website of one of the researchers, Robert Zatorre, has a list of the music the participants most often chose. Among them are Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Explosions in the Sky’s First Breath After Coma. I listened to these, one right after the other. They definitely have something in common, but I don’t have enough technical expertise to figure out what.

One critic has said that Adagio for Strings is “full of pathos and cathartic passion, rarely leaves a dry eye.” It is played at funerals and during the radio announcements of the deaths of political leaders. The BBC Orchestra played it after Sept. 11. Their performance, under Leonard Slatkin, is on YouTube, with close-ups of Slatkin’s face and the faces of the Sept. 11 firefighters and policemen. Their expressions of deeply felt emotion were in perfect harmony with the music. Adagio for Strings is part of several movies and TV show soundtracks and has influenced many rock bands.

Also played during that Sept. 11 memorial were pieces by Gustav Mahler, especially the Adagietto from Symphony No. 5. Leonard Bernstein conducted the Adagietto at the funeral of Robert F. Kennedy. In the book Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed our World, Norman Lebrecht writes “Along with Samuel Barber’s Adagio, itself a Mahlerian imitation, Mahler’s Second, Fifth and Ninth Symphonies were America’s music of lamentation.” Lebrecht opines that Mahler’s Adagietto can be heard in the music of the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd.

Why does sad music release dopamine? The researchers write that one explanation for its release while listening to music is “the enhancement of emotions. The emotions induced by music are evoked, among other things, by temporal phenomena, such as expectation, delay, tension, resolution, prediction, surprise and anticipation.” Just those emotions that result in the release of dopamine in expectation of a meal or of making whoopee, as well as in the acts themselves.

Cognitive scientists have learned so much about how our brains work, and yet there are still such profound mysteries. Do we value music because our brain has been tricked into thinking we are about to eat? Smoking a cigarette also releases dopamine. Or has music really helped the human race survive?

Nancy Bauer is a writer of fiction and arts commentary based in Fredericton. She can be reached at