David Huron's Science of the Sublime: Are We Afraid of Music?

David Huron's Science of the Sublime: Are We Afraid of Music?

Why do people respond to music the way we do? This is the topic that Dr. David Huron, a Professor at the School of Music and the Center for Cognitive and Brain Sciences at Ohio State University, spoke about during his lecture the evening of Sept. 26. His talk focused on the similar ways people tend to react to music, and what he believes to be the root of these reactions: fear. 

Dr. Huron began his lecture by talking about the common responses that people have to music. Namely, people often report that music makes them feel short of breath ("takes their breath away), gives them goosebumps, makes their throat feel constricted ("get choked up"), or makes them cry. In short, music inspires awe — a mixture of wonder and terror. 

He then listed a variety of features of music that can cause these responses. These included loud sounds, low pitch, high-intensity sounds like screaming or opera, music that gets louder or softer, and music that causes surprise, among others. He argued that all of these aspects could be perceived as fear-inducing, leading Huron to formulate his theory that the perception of music as sublime and awe-inspiring has to do with fear response, which he calls the Fear Suppression Theory. 

In this theory, Huron argues that common responses to music can fall into the categories of response to fear - fight, flight, freeze, or appeasement (a sign of submission seen in social animals). For instance, goosebumps cause a mammal's fur to stand on end, making the animal appear bigger and more threatening to a predator — it is a "fight" response. Similarly, shortness of breath may stem from an evolutionary desire to "freeze" in the face of danger and breathe minimally so as to not aggravate a predator, or from a desire to run away, as in an adrenaline reaction in the face of physical danger. Crying, on the other hand, is a signal of appeasement, and in humans it elicits empathy in others. 

So if all of these responses are rooted in fear, why don't we feel afraid when listening to music? Dr. Huron explained that his answer to this question is related to the two ways the brain processes sensory information. These occur via different neurological pathways of the brain. The first is processed by the cerebral cortex, which is associated with rational thought. The second pathway relays sensory information to the amygdalae, structures responsible for instinctual reactions, such as fear response. 

When we hear music, it is processed by both areas of the brain. When music has the qualities Huron references, it is perceived by the amygdalae as inducing fear. However, the sensory cortex does not perceive any reason to be afraid, and therefore suppresses this fear reaction. Because the amygdalae processes sensory information more quickly than the sensory cortex, there is a slight delay in this suppression, and so we feel the residual effects of this fear even though we don't feel afraid. Huron concludes that is the source of these responses to music; the reason why it "takes our breath away". 

Huron's Suppressed Fear Theory provides a highly rational and easily understood explanation of seemingly irrational responses to music. More than anything, it speaks to music's ability to make us feel vulnerable. And just as music's rhythm marks the progression of our limited time, it can cause us to literally fear for our lives. In Dr. Huron's view and in the view of music lovers everywhere, this is as much proof as anything that music is a force of great power. One might even say it is “awe-inspiring.”

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