A new clue to help explain why music is emotional emerged this month from medical science because of renewed interest in the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). It is well known that LSD was widely used by artists and musicians in the 1950s and 1960s. Now, a modern placebo-controlled study of whether or not LSD enhances the emotional response to instrumental music has shown, in a small group of volunteers, that the drug apparently boosts emotions such as "wonder", "transcendence", "power" and "tenderness".

I've always loved music, in the words of the song, "music was my first love". From the time I had my first toy glockenspiel to my deluded midlife efforts to reinvent myself as a hybrid of David Bowie and Peter Gabriel but without the masks, makeup or gold lamé hotpants.

We talk about music evoking emotions, about moving pieces of music. In a classic TED Talk, conductor Benjamin Zander has his audience in tears as he explains Chopin's emotive power of chordal suspense and musical resolution. Music captivates, fascinates, makes us cry, makes us laugh, rouses and arouses us, angers us, amuses us. And, that's even before anyone has added any words to an instrumental piece and called it a song.

But, something about music bothers me. It's an emotional placebo, isn't it? The emotions we feel when we listen to music, they're real, but they are triggered by something that is somehow not real. A song that makes you cry is triggering something emotionally, but it's not a genuine unhappy occasion that brings one to tears, it's a succession of notes and chords, a tune, a melody... not a real sad "event", it's just noises. What is it that we are feeling when we listen to music that brings us to tears or makes us want to rhythmically jump for joy? It may well be that a particular piece of music reminds us of something sad, something happy, or whatever emotion is being triggered, but more often than not it seems to evokes emotion without an associated memory.

Mark Changizi in his book Harnessed, suggested some time ago that music moves us because it hooks into a primitive part of our brain that hears sounds in terms of our fellow apes moving around or the comings and goings of predators and prey. It is our tuning in to the rise and fall of frequencies due to the Doppler effect that lets us know whether those heavy steps are running towards us or away, for instance. So, sounds might trigger primitive emotions by harnessing the internal machinery of the fight or flight response and setting us up to lash out or run away, perhaps. Other sounds might be evocative of prey to be stalked or a mate to be wooed. Maybe too, there are noises of sadness that one might hear if someone is sick or dying. "I suppose I might suggest they're real emotions, albeit evoked by a fictional human mover," Changizi told me this week.

Music equates to emotion for so many of us, many people cannot live without it, are desperate to hear new music and others keen to play and write their own music. And, yet...while the emotions feel so real, are they really as authentic as the emotions we feel when faced by those incidents and accidents, when times are good or bad, happy or sad? Maybe my phrase "emotional placebo" is not quite the right term, although music is not only emotional but can often be healing too. Music is a stimulus that tugs at our heart's different strings by proxy. Perhaps the mechanism is a kind of emotional synesthesia. Just as those with that condition can hear colors or smell textures, for instance, perhaps music is stimulating the emotion centers in the brain as if it is a real happy, sad or other happening that we are experiencing and triggering the appropriate response.

Changizi offers an additional insight, "Is a television show a proxy stimulus? Are the emotions resulting from TV fake?" he asks. Where I argue that music is more abstract than that, he suggests that, "Music is just more abstract fiction than television. But still amounts to a stimulus which seems to your brain like a story of an individual moving around you doing stuff. But a more emotional story, not with the people talking."

Whatever the answer, I'd just like to say thank you for the music and put another record on...

David Bradley blogs at Sciencebase Science Blog and tweets @sciencebase. He has never worn hotpants.