Why music moves us

Why does music move us? Why can it make us feel so alive, so human?

Yesterday morning, I woke up very early, as the birds were beginning to sing. It was the day we had to move out of the house we moved into just a year ago – the landlady had decided to sell it. While I was waiting for everyone else to wake up so we could begin the move, I surfed YouTube, and came across the film A Room With A View, one of my favourites.

I watched the opening scene, which features the Puccini aria O Mio Babbino Caro, and the music moved me to tears. And it still does, when I watch a video of Maria Callas perform it today. The music is so beautiful that it makes me cry.

Why? What is happening in the mind?

Let me attempt an explanation – forgive me if it’s crass – attempts to describe why music moves us are usually as ham-fisted as attempts to explain why humour moves us.

I think opera, in particular, moves us because it is an expression of the unique human condition – a sense of the sweetness of some aspects of our earthly existence, such as love and beauty, juxtaposed against an awareness of their transience, of time, death, break-ups, decay.

But, more than that, I think the true sweet grief of opera is a sense, a feeling, that, because we’re aware of our predicament, because we’re aware of the glory of existence and its transience, we somehow transcend the transience.

There is not just death and dissolution – there is a soul in us, greater than death, and it is from this soul that music comes. I think that’s why opera moves us. It’s the perfect expression of the thought – ‘life is brief, things fall apart, humans are weak, frail prisoners of circumstances, and yet beneath that all, we are somehow greater than our circumstances’.

This is the mystery of being a human: sometimes, when we are weakest, when we are most defeated, when our limitations are most exposed, that is when we reveal our true invincible spirit.

Watch this clip of Callas singing in her final London concert, before she died at 53. What is the spirit, in her frail body? Where does it come from? Where did it go?



  • magdalene says:

    your article touches my soul.

  • Music and Emotions

    The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can’t convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

    An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will “I don’t want any more…”. If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will “I don’t want any more…” with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words “I don’t want anymore…” the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

    But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called “lead”, “leading tone” or “striving effects”. If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change – but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

    Further information is available via the free download of the e-book “Music and Emotion – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:


    or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:


    Enjoy reading

    Bernd Willimek

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *