Why We Love Music (Hint: Free Your Mind and Your A** Will Follow)*

The next time you find yourself tapping your feet or humming along to a piece of music that catches your fancy, thank the circuits firing in your brain. A “pleasure chemical” called dopamine is released in the brain’s upper striatum – a key part of the brain’s reward system – that pushes the music into a peak sensory experience, much like with a tasty meal or memorable roll in the hay.

As the peak approaches, you might feel “chills and other signs” that your body’s autonomic nervous system – responsible for regulating involuntary body functions – is being aroused.

How do I know this? Because I have a colossal intelligence that cannot be contained by this mortal coil.

And also because I read an article about it on The Conversation website.

Another article I came across recently, on the World Economic Forum website (of all places), addressed the calming effect of music, particularly as it pertains to reducing stress and improving mental health. This article wasn’t as sciencey, though it did feature a few quotes from university professors talking about music’s therapeutic qualities, and its ability to reduce feelings of social isolation.

I bring this up because I often think about the strange spell music has on humans in general and myself in particular. In my case, the peak experiences usually involve American jazz music. The moment I hear it, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I gravitate toward it like an ant to a jellybean.

Sometimes I can hear jazz even when logic dictates that I really shouldn’t. I might be strolling past some little cafe on a loud, busy street, sandwiched between a pair of construction sites that are spitting out a deafening cacophony of noise, and if that little cafe’s sound system is serenading its customers with a quiet rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” you can bet my ears will pick it up and my dopamine will kick in.

It’s not like this for everyone. According to The Conversation article, some folks simply don’t react to pleasurable music the way others do. It’s not because they don’t like music. They might like it well enough, the way most of us like a glass of tap water well enough. Tap water is pleasant, it wets the whistle, it fulfills its duty with no fuss or drama, it doesn’t promise more than it can deliver, but it usually delivers what it promises.

But it’s not like having a rich, aromatic cup of coffee, or a cold frothy beer, or a thick and yummy milkshake.

With some people, music just floats right through and past them, having no more impact than an after-dinner mint. With many others, though, it conjures up deep feelings and emotions, ranging from sadness and nostalgia to joy, peace – and, it must be said, hostility and aggression (as anyone who has ever been to a slam-dancing punk show can attest, and as we witnessed with the recent Astroworld tragedy).

I’ve always had a visceral connection with music, at least as a listener. My attempts to play instruments have yielded mixed results. I did learn an instrument in junior high school – the cornet, which is basically a type of trumpet, only not as cool. I took a few years of cornet lessons as part of the school curriculum. I learned all the fingerings and notes, learned how to read sheet music, could make it through songs without screwing things up too badly. But I wasn’t very good at it.

I wish I’d been better at the cornet. If I had been, maybe I’d still be playing it. But hey, I tried. For a few years, I could play an instrument.

Everyone should learn an instrument at some point in their lives. It has been proven to have a range of benefits beyond just the music itself – learning how to create, learning how to solve problems, learning how to follow instructions, learning how to improvise, learning how to practice, learning discipline, leaning how to sync with others, and how to wow the babes (or hunks).

What I lacked in musical talent, I’ve more than made up for in passion as a fan. I can’t remember a time when music was not a central part of my life. One of my earliest memories outside of home and family was of listening to the Beatles. I was five years old when JFK was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. I don’t remember that. But I remember the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which reached No. 1 in the United States only a few months later.

Later in life I became an obsessive consumer and listener of music. In high school I spent most of my money (not much, admittedly), on records. In college I built my collection into a mini empire, and wrote a music column for the student newspaper. I bought hundreds of records and attended dozens of concerts and club shows. My tastes ran to rock and punk and funk and R&B, with only a smattering of jazz tossed in.

The only major purchase I remember making in college, other than a beat-up old car, was a stereo system with a Technics turntable and Advent speakers. As a young adult I could spend an entire day listening to one album after another, all while reading a music magazine like “Rolling Stone” or “Spin.” As the day wore into evening, and the bongs and beers came out, my friends and I would blast music until the wee hours. And then I’d finish it all off, alone, by tossing on the headphones and zoning out on music until the even wee-er hours.

I always assumed this phase would pass, like other phases. But it never did. My passion for music stretched into my 30s, 40s, and 50s, and continues to this very moment. I’m listening to music as I write this: a two-CD compilation of Art Farmer tunes.

I still listen to music for hours every day. I go to two or three live performances a month here in London, usually either at Ronnie Scott’s or the Pizza Express Jazz Club. My stereo system is in storage back in the States, so I listen to downloaded music on my laptop. I buy several CDs a year that I also download. The laptop’s sound system sucks, but the music is fine, and there’s always headphones, which clean the sound up considerably.

The music I listen to now is almost exclusively jazz. I’m not even sure when or how that happened. Probably 10 or 15 years ago, when I started digging deeper into the sonic possibilities of music, adopted a greater appreciation of instrumentation, and found that vocals often got in the way.

It’s not like I was a newcomer to jazz. I’d always had an appreciation for it. My father owned and played the occasional jazz record when I was a kid. I would also hear it on TV, and occasionally on the radio. In high school, during the 70s, I bought a few jazz fusion records, which featured jazz improvisation and structures, but with electric instruments, and a heavier, more pop-inspired beat, and players with huge puffy hair, who wore leisure suits, wide-collar shirts unbuttoned to their navels, and four or five gold necklaces.

Now I mainly listen to hard-bop jazz from the 1950s and 60s, a more traditional form, but also a very creative one in the sense that many artists from the era threw out the old rules and made up new ones based on tone, harmony, rhythm, and space between notes.

This music has an almost transformative effect on me. And it’s not only aural, either. It’s also visual. You can see music the same way you can hear books. When some muted trumpet or sax comes wafting into my ear, backed by a soft, loping bass, subtle piano chords, and gentle swishing of drum brushes, my mind is filled not only with the sounds but the dim light of a cozy little jazz club, with its shadows and low ceilings. I find comfort in the music, a lightness of being that’s hard to describe.

Watching a live jazz performance puts me in a kind of trance. You get locked into the musicians, and the tunes floating out of their voices and instruments.

Whenever someone asks me whether I’d rather lose my sight or my hearing, I have to think about it. I can only imagine that it’s much easier being deaf than blind. The ability to see things seems to solve a whole lot of problems, beyond the simple fact that you can bear witness to so much visual wonder.

But living the rest of my days without music to help me through them?

That sounds very bad for the old dopamine…

*”Free Your Ass…and Your Mind Will Follow” is the name of a Funkadelic album from 1970. But it turns out the mind controls the ass after all.

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