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The wonder of music

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

This summer, we have been exploring one of our most important emotions - our sense of wonder. In this week's installment, NPR's Rob Stein delves into something that evokes wonder for him - music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMMUNION IN MY CUP")

TANK AND THE BANGAS: (Singing) Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: This summer I traveled to Montreal to do one of my favorite things - listen to live music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMMUNION IN MY CUP")

TANK AND THE BANGAS: (Singing) I just want to hop out the morning-colored Porsche.

STEIN: For three days, I wandered around the Montreal Jazz Festival with two buddies listening to jazz, rock, blues and all kinds of surprising musical mashups like this Danish-Turkish-Kurdish band called AySay.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AYSAY: (Singing in non-English language).

STEIN: It reminded me how magnificent music has been in my life, from when I fell in love with folk rock as a kid...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART OF GOLD")

NEIL YOUNG: (Singing) I want to live. I want to give.

STEIN: ...Grew up with The Boss in New Jersey...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO RUN")

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) In the day, we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream.

STEIN: ...Discovered punk rock in college...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLAMPDOWN")

THE CLASH: (Singing) What are we going to do now?

STEIN: ...And, yeah, these days, Taylor Swift.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL TOO WELL")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) 'Cause there we are again in the middle of the night. We're dancing 'round the kitchen in the refrigerator light.

STEIN: Music could always lift me up and transport me to the closest I've ever come to having a religious experience...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL TOO WELL")

SWIFT: (Singing) Yeah.

STEIN: ...Which got me wondering - get it? - wonder, wondering - why. Why does music do that? So I did what I do - called some experts.

DANIEL LEVITIN: Music does evoke a sense of wonder and awe for lots of people.

STEIN: Daniel Levitin is a neuroscientist at McGill University. He scans the brains of people while they listen to tunes.

LEVITIN: Some of it is still mysterious to us, but what we can talk about are some neural circuits or networks. Those are involved in the experience of pleasure and reward. If you're thirsty and you get a drink, if you're feeling randy and you have sex, if you're listening to music that you really like, this pleasure center comes online.

STEIN: Triggering the production of brain chemicals that are involved in feelings like pleasure.

LEVITIN: It modulates levels of dopamine as well as opioids in the brain. Your brain makes opioids.

STEIN: Neurons in the brain even actually fire with the beat of the music, which helps people feel connected to one another by literally synchronizing their brainwaves when they listen to the same song.

LEVITIN: What we used to say in the '60s is, hey; I'm on the same wavelength as you, man. But it's literally true. Your brain waves are synchronized listening to music.

STEIN: Music also has a calming effect, according to Dacher Keltner, a University of California Berkeley psychologist - slowing our heart rates, deepening our breathing, lowering stress hormones, making us feel more connected to other people as well as the world around us, especially when we start to dance together.

DACHER KELTNER: Those pathways of changing our body, symbolizing what is vast and mysterious for us and then moving our bodies triggers the mind into a state of wonder. And we imagine, why do I feel this way? What is this music teaching me about what is vast and mysterious? Music allows us to feel these transcendent emotions.

STEIN: Which is why music plays such a powerful role in many religions, spirituality and rituals. All this made me wonder, do musicians feel this way, too?

(SOUNDBITE OF PHISH SONG, "NO MEN IN NO MAN’S LAND")

MIKE GORDON: Yeah. I definitely experience wonder while playing music on a regular basis.

STEIN: Mike Gordon is the bass player for the band Phish.

GORDON: It's almost like these neural pathways are opening, and it's almost like the air around me crystallizes where everything around me is more itself - the notes, a couple hits of the snare drum. I developed this sort of hypersensitivity where it's now electrified.

STEIN: And he suddenly vividly remembers dreams and doesn't want to be anywhere else, like when he's playing this song, "No Man's Land."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO MEN IN NO MAN’S LAND")

PHISH: (Singing) How far have we fallen?

STEIN: So I think I'm going to crank up some of my favorite tunes and wonder at the wonder music brings us. Rob Stein, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO MEN IN NO MAN’S LAND")

PHISH: (Singing) We are the no men in no man's land. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.