Why am I crying?? The surprise connections between music listening & emotion

The first time I heard “Song For Zula”, by Phosphorescent, I was driving on Autoroute 10 out of Montreal. I was contemplating some pretty major life changes, having just experienced some major losses and finding opportunity in another country. Headed back to Maine, my ipod was on shuffle while I navigated signs en francais; and suddenly I just started weeping in my car. It felt quite silly, to be honest, because there wasn’t anything sad necessarily. I just began to cry.

And now, in my work as a music therapist, I see this almost daily. Most often, it’s a family member sitting in the room with the hospital patient to whom I’ve been referred. I’ll introduce myself and learn a bit about the patient’s needs, and then I often start singing to introduce music into the environment. Almost immediately, tears flow. It’s not my job to know why- perhaps that specific song brings up memories of a love lost, a deceased family member, or a younger self. Perhaps seeing a child or family member singing along brings relief. Perhaps there just hasn’t been space, until now, in the safe length of this song, in which to express emotion.

When there aren’t specific nonmusical attachments to a song, what causes the feeling? During my Montreal trip, I had never even heard of Phosphorescent before- a friend in Canada had added it to a playlist for my drive home. And on a recent internet search for the meaning of that song, I learned that even Matthew Houck isn’t willing to share what it means. Had I pushed my own meaning into the words, relating to some arrangement of those lyrics? Did it remind me of the Better Midler song I’d heard so many times when I was young? Or was it the music- the big, dreamlike synths, strings, guitars, and drums? The song only has four chords repeating throughout, so there aren’t harmonies tugging at my heartstrings.

I’m aware that there are many people who will scoff at my teary response to “Song For Zula”. When I was an intern at Sloan Kettering, I had to fight the urge to eye-roll every time a patient wanted to hear that “still feel small when you stand beside the ocean” song (sorry, patients). There is a whole field called neuroaesthetics that studies why the human brain finds certain things beautiful or chilling or awful, and why there are such variations between individual humans. Obviously, there’s also music theory, and acknowledging that if you’ve studied music it becomes easier to judge songs that are ‘not good’- too simple, not musically interesting, etc. Let’s focus for now on the hair-raising reaction for people who can set aside their Schoenberg tendencies and let themselves cry to Adele.

Charles Darwin said in 1872 that “Music has a wonderful power of recalling in a vague and indefinite manner, those strong emotions which were felt during long-past ages.” Tears, to Darwin and Freud, relate to helplessness and inability to communicate. Until science grew enough to allow us to actually study the brain (and we have a long way to go), these theories were just theories.

Today, we know that the amygdala (involved in emotion and memory) and the cerebellum (which gives us the experience of intense emotion) work together to create responses to music. The cerebellum adjusts itself to synchronize with the music to which we listen, and it does that immediately- this is what makes us tap along in time to a favorite song. And circuits in the brain called mirror neurons provide us with the empathy to connect our own meaning to that of the music- even if we don’t know what the composer actually meant. Experiencing empathy leads to feeling compassion, and this feels good. Listening to music, therefore, is good for all of humanity. (yes, yes, I’m quite biased).

But really, pay attention to the music that brings up emotions. Think about whether you’re reminded of your mum singing it, or if perhaps it’s just the tension and release in the chordal patterns or an unexpected high note of the song that are triggering your brain to feel.

Need practice? Put some headphones on, close your eyes, and press ‘play’ on Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” led by the legendary Bernstein.


Kate Beever

About Kate Beever

I am a board-certified neurologic music therapist and owner of Maine Music & Health, which provides services and consulting to healthcare and arts agencies throughout the state.