Think about it for just a second, why do people like music? Because it makes people feel things, right? But why? Where does that feeling come from, whether it’s joy, or sadness, or power, or warmth, or whatever it may be?
The answer is actually quite simple. One word: nostalgia. Not necessarily in the sense of a song bringing back memories because when you listened to that song for the first time in Disneyland, and now you feel as if you’re in Disneyland when you listen to it. Although that’s definitely an example of nostalgia and a very powerful one, the links between nostalgia and music are even deeper than that. If that’s all music is, nostalgia, then how do some songs hit hard immediately on the first listen?
It’s because we associate different elements of music with different feelings. We grew up in a world where a shift from a major chord to a minor chord is generally used to evoke a feeling of unease, minor keys are generally used to evoke melancholy, major keys generally used to evoke happiness, and countless other elements and tiny details that make up music.
This is called Western music theory, and maybe you don’t know it, but you’ve fallen in love with it. If you love music, it’s because you’ve fallen in love with and grown attached to countless tiny details that make up Western music theory because it’s the same music theory used in songs you have memories with and nostalgia for, in the same way that you may grow attached to somebody because of the amazing memories you have for that person.
The thing is, Western music theory, which divides the octave into twelve pitches (notes), was not always used and there have been plenty of other versions of music theory. For example, when you listen to Hurrian Hymn No. 6, the oldest known song, it may sound as if the music is completely out of tune. But that is only because in the culture where that song originated they simply used different notes than us. If they listened to Western music, they would feel the same thing.
The point is, Western music theory is not “correct”. The notes on a piano were not divinely chosen to be pleasing to humans, they aren’t at any special frequencies which are naturally pleasing to the ear, and they weren’t scientifically engineered to create music. The C6 key on a piano is no more “musical” than a microwave beeping. However, because we grew up listening to the notes on a piano and associating them with music, they sound more “pleasant” to us.
So that’s why we love music. We love it because we have nostalgia for when we heard a major chord shift to a minor chord when we were thinking about our ex, and all of a sudden we feel everything again. We have nostalgia for when we heard a certain genre of music with certain sounds and instruments that brought us back to when we were kids. So the reason we love music isn’t just partly because of nostalgia, it’s arguably entirely because of it.
So next time you’re feeling sad because you’re listening to a song that reminds you of a memory you’d like to forget, realize that this exact feeling is the reason you’re able to enjoy music in the first place.