Why Does House Music Feel ‘So Damn Good’?
“House music is a feeling” is a phrase coined by multiple producers, DJs and other prominent figures in the electronic music scene. It is also an unoriginal title shared by around a hundred house tracks. Is this just a figure of speech or is there sound scientific reasoning behind it?
You may have heard of dopamine, a neurotransmitter found in the brain most commonly known for its association with feelings of happiness. When dopamine is released from a region in the brain known as the ventral tegmental area, it stimulates dopamine-sensitive neurons in other parts of the brain, namely the nucleus accumbens, amygdala and hippocampus. This is known as the mesolimbic pathway, commonly referred to as the reward pathway. Dopamine is released when we partake in rewarding and pleasurable activities which activate the aforementioned pathway. This includes activities essential to one’s survival such as eating and having sex, which our bodies reward us for. Furthermore, drugs such as nicotine, cocaine and heroin boost dopamine levels. So, why does listening to music also trigger this response?
Although listening to music can produce a rewarding feeling, it is not intrinsic to human survival. As such, the effect of music on the reward pathway has baffled people from the common party-goer to the puzzled scientist. Hence, a multitude of studies have investigated the subject, with the majority utilising brain scans to explore the neural correlates of this reward system. A study at McGill University carried out by Salimpoor and Zatorre shed some light on this topic 1. The study showed that listening to music generates a strong transmission to the nucleus accumbens. Zatorre claims “music has such deep roots in the brain that it engages this biologically ancient system”, and the results of his study support this. The findings demonstrated that when participants listened to one of their favourite songs for 15 minutes, dopamine levels in the brain significantly increased by 9% compared to the dopamine levels of participants who did not listen to music. However, it is important to note that only eight volunteers participated in the study and it did not investigate different genres of music. Although this study demonstrates the influence of music on the brain’s reward or dopaminergic system, it is unclear whether different genres have different effects on the dopaminergic reward pathway. Nonetheless, several studies that examine the specific traits of house music suggest that listening to house music is an extra pleasurable experience.
House music has particular qualities that make it ‘so damn good’. Beats per minute (BPM) plays a fundamental role in how humans process music. House music has an average speed of 120 to 130 BPM. Interestingly, studies show that music that lies between 90 to 150 BPM produces greater feelings of happiness and joy as well as diminishing emotions associated with sadness 2. Tempo directly affects a person physiologically, namely their respiratory and cardiovascular system, by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. Evidence has shown that the respiratory system exhibits a degree of synchronisation with the tempo of the music with faster tempos increasing heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate, whereas a slower tempo produces the opposite effect. These effects on the cardiovascular and respiratory system explain how house music can generate feelings of excitement and happiness.
Another theory is that the ‘build up and drop’ incorporated into house music influences the dopamine reward system. The drop is when there is a drastic change in beat and rhythm; momentum is built up and then the bass and rhythm ‘hit hard’ or ‘drop’. It has been suggested that the length and intensity of anticipation during the build up to a drop in a house track plays an important part in how much of a reward your brain gives to you 3. Studies conducted by David Huron, Professor in the School of Music and in the Center for Cognitive and Brain Sciences at the Ohio State University, aim to fully understand and explain why this is 4. Huron uses a five response factor system involving imagination, tension, prediction, reaction and appraisal to understand the effects of musical anticipation. Combined, these five factors cause a person to react to music. For example, say you are listening to a song and a build up begins, you are already imagining that there is going to be a satisfying drop. The tension response is preparing your body for the drop (and also preparing a dopamine hit to the brain) as does the prediction response. The reaction and appraisal response occur when the body assessing its environment and situation and determines that the dopamine should be released.
Other factors that influence the relationship between house music and the dopamine system include socialising and dancing. Humans are social creatures – we love to interact with others and crave a sense of belonging. Furthermore, as you have probably experienced, emotions are contagious and spread through social networks, a fact supported by psychological studies. In one study, participants were shown photographs of another person who displayed either a happy or sad expression 5. The emotions experienced by those viewing the photographers were assessed using MRI scans and, in the majority of cases, they were found to experience the same emotion as the person in the photograph. Therefore, when in a room full of others enjoying themselves and dancing a collective positive mood can be generated due to our brains subconsciously mimicking the perceived emotions of those around you.
Dancing is also part of the dopamine release process – be it in a club or if you are just home alone having a boogie. Like many other physical activities, dancing releases endorphins into the bloodstream. Endorphins are another form of neurotransmitter and their main function is to decrease levels of pain felt in the body. When they are released they can also stimulate feelings of euphoria; when you dance, you can feel great. Therefore, when dancing to house music, you can experience the dual action of dopamine and endorphins, a hugely pleasurable combination.
It is important to consider that personal taste affects how a person feels when listening to music. House fans have a predisposition to repetitive, pulsating rhythms and the characteristics of house, including the previously discussed BPM and build up and drop. It is thought that various personality traits can affect a person’s music taste such as extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Extraverts tend to enjoy upbeat and energetic music (such as house), which people who demonstrate a high level of agreeableness also prefer. Neurotic people tend to experience higher levels of emotional response from music, both positive and negative. Influences like age, gender and how an individual wants to be viewed also affect what kind of music you listen to and how it makes you feel. Cultural assumptions can result in certain prejudices towards music with regards to gender – it is often assumed that boys prefer rock music and girls prefer pop. Similarly, we think of older people preferring quieter classical music as opposed to bass-heavy EDM.
The unique features of house music can explain why passionate fans say it just feels ‘so damn good’. Through its physiological influence on our dopaminergic reward system, music affects us both mentally and physically. One could say that house music listeners take full advantage of this phenomenon. Our brains cannot help it that we love house music’s big beats and we cannot help two-stepping away to it, with our dopaminergic system loving it just as much 6.
Here is one of my favourite playlists so have a listen and get your dopamine fix:
This article was specialist edited by Sonya Frazier and copy-edited by Kirsten Woollcott.
- Study at McGill University http://www.mcgill.ca/newsroom/channels/news/why-does-music-feel-so-good-225893
- Article on how tempo affects mood https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4971092/
- Article on musical anticipation https://www.djbroadcast.net/article/122774/the-science-behind-the-drop
- Article on how anticipation affects emotional response https://dj.dancecult.net/index.php/dancecult/article/download/451/457
- Article on dopamine release due to music http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/04/11/why-does-music-feel-so-good/