I’ve just been reading Paul Bloom’s 2010 popular science book, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, looking for science-based explanations for my experiences with songs. I love singing - because of songs. Because of what songs do to me, when I’m listening and when I’m singing. My peak experiences of singing happen when I’m with other people who also lose themselves in the song. The quality of their listening makes the pleasure more powerful and my immersion more complete. And I know I’m not the only person who loses themselves in a song. I watch and listen to other singers and I can hear it in their voices.
Am I stating the bleeding obvious? Yes, I am. Because songs offer us an everyday experience of pleasure that we take completely for granted.
Helpfully, Bloom offers an overview, arguing that pleasure is a by-product of systems originally developed for other evolutionary purposes. “Many significant human pleasures are universal. But they are not biological adaptations. They are by-products of mental systems that have evolved for other purposes.” (p.8) For instance, our song preferences are driven by the way we categorise the world around us, assigning essential qualities to people and things. Similar to the value we place on paintings, films and books, the songs we enjoy give us pleasure because of what we think they are. For us, they possess essential qualities that make them useful as emblems, symbols that affirm our identity. Essentialism offers a plausible explanation for why our song preferences get locked in during our adolescence and early adulthood, as we come to define ourselves in relation to our social worlds.
Bloom also discusses underlying systems of embodied social cognition. In most other cultures and societies there is one single word for singing and dancing. Even in the most cerebral approaches to music listening, sitting perfectly still, the parts of our brain that organise our movement are activated. We are dancing inside, invisibly, at a profound, persistent, and deep level. And when we synchronise with others, we become more generous, we feel close, we bond. So, it seems, through the patterns in the music, the rhythms, the shapes, the spaces, songs can impact what happens inside of us, and in consequence, can strengthen our connection with others.
And the rhetoric in song lyrics is not a static work of art. The stories in our songs connect us to our imaginations at every point, from creation, to performance, consumption and reflection. We relish having access to safe experiences of risk and reward. Songs can offer big narratives, a flirtation with dangerous emotions, a rich version of reality without consequence or labour. Again, this is a by-product, or rather, as Bloom says, a quirk of existing systems. “Once you have a creature that responds with pleasure to certain real-world experiences and doesn’t fully distinguish reality from imagination, the capacity to get pleasure from stories comes for free, as a lucky accident.” (p.173)
I am magnetically drawn to some songs. They give me goosebumps and other thrills. I most often choose songs that offer exotic emotional experiences, dramatically taut, well-constructed mini-versions of alternate realities. As Bloom explains, the unreal events in fiction can be more moving than real events on multiple levels: the narrators and characters tend to be more interesting and clever than our friends; the stories in the fiction compress time, leaving out the boring bits; and although in reality we can never hear another’s thoughts, in stories we are allowed into the narrator’s inner world. What's not to love?
In every corner of the life sciences I can usually find something that helps to make sense of my experiences, particularly around empathy and the evocation of memory and emotion. What I believe now is that songs and singing are a grand reflection of the multimodal underlying systems that shape our minds, bodies and emotions.
Bloom, P. (2010). How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. New York: Norton.