For some, music can mean happiness. For others, it can mean sadness. Varying musical interpretations come back to one especially integral and often overlooked element – the brain. It’s no secret that our brains are amazing machines, and that’s demonstrated in their reactions to music. You don’t feel it; but, your brain is undergoing a plethora of processes while listening to songs.
When music is heard, the auditory cortex is the first to respond, processing the perception of sound and tones. The sounds are delivered to the hippocampus, where memories of the song are evoked. Emotional responses are due to the activity in the cerebellum, amygdala and nucleus accumbens. The prefrontal cortex is activated with anticipation when our favourite part of a song approaches. As you can see, a large portion of the brain is triggered, simply from a collection of sounds arranged as music.
Ever wondered how a song gets stuck in your head? A major factor of pop songs, or ‘earworms’, burrowing through every crevice of your head is the amount of times you’ve heard the song. The more we hear a song, the more the hippocampus is able to draw memories of the song. Researchers have also identified a bunch of similarities in the fabric of common earworms. These popular songs generally feature a faster pace, unexpected leaps in timing, or more repeated notes than expected. Additionally, the first phrase rises and the second phrase consequently falls. A song that exemplifies these qualities is Lady Gaga’s huge 2009 hit single ‘Bad Romance’. I bet it’s still stuck in your head after all these years.
Of course, frequently being exposed to earworms such as ‘Bad Romance’ has had an impact on the type of music most popular in Western culture. Outlined in an MIT News article, professors Josh McDermott and Ricardo Godoy conducted two sets of studies in 2011 and 2015 on an Amazonian tribe, who live in the small town of Tsimane and have extremely limited exposure to Western music. The team performed the same tests on a group of Spanish-speaking Bolivians and also American musicians and non-musicians. In each study, researches asked participants to rate how much they liked dissonant and consonant chords. The intention of the study was to determine if the music that certain people are drawn to is hardwired in the brain, or if it is a result of cultural factors.
“What we found is the preference for consonance over dissonance varies dramatically across those five groups,” McDermott says. “In the Tsimane it’s undetectable, and in the two groups in Bolivia, there’s a statistically significant but small preference. In the American groups it’s quite a bit larger, and it’s bigger in the musicians than in the non-musicians.”
The findings suggest that it is likely culture, and not a biological factor, that determines the common preference for consonant musical chords, says Brian Moore, a professor of psychology at Cambridge University.
While cultural factors impact the likelihood of what music we like and dislike, the science behind musical appreciation is more… well, scientific. Musical appreciation can be related to the feelings we experience during sex, eating chocolate and even on consumption of cocaine. In Wired’s article on The Neuroscience Of Music, it states that when listening to music, dopamine is released into a part of the brain called the striatum; a common response to pleasurable stimuli. If you want to keep your brain engaged throughout the ageing process, listening to music is a great way to accomplish that. Research has shown that it can reduce anxiety, blood pressure and pain, while simultaneously improving memory, mood, alertness and the quality of sleep.
Music’s affect on the brain remain largely unclear and misconstrued, represented by the supposed ‘Mozart effect’ of which it’s believed that Mozart’s music makes people smarter. It doesn’t. A lot of research has been conducted on the topic, however there is still no real concrete evidence surrounding many of the conceptions of music’s affect on the mind. But one thing is clear from reading this article – ‘Bad Romance’ will be stuck in your head for a further 10 years. Sorry about that.