Your Brain on Music: Why We Like What We Like

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Today we’ll discuss the penultimate chapter of Daniel J. Levitin’s “This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession“. If you’re curious about why you happen to like your favorite band more than others, or what exactly turns you off about your parents’ music, this is the chapter for you.

Last time, we looked at expertise, both in relation to music, and in general. We saw how memory and schemas are related to expertise, defined what we mean when we refer to “talent”, and discovered that, in the end, while we can’t all be expert musicians, all of us are expert listeners of music.

Now let’s take a look at why exactly we’re drawn to certain types of music, and why others seem inaccessible.

Why We Like What We Like

When it comes to figuring out why we prefer some music over others, we have to look back at the early foundations we all build while growing up. We won’t talk about the “Mozart effect”, which Levitin denounces early on. For the sake of brevity, we’ll skip the infancy stage altogether.

“It is around the age of ten or eleven that most children take on music as a real interest, even those children who didn’t express such an interest in music earlier. As adults, the music we tend to be nostalgic for, the music that feels like it is ‘our’ music, corresponds to the music we heard during these years” (p. 231).

These early years of self-discovery and growth are emotionally charged for all of us. Our bodies are going through changes, and we’re learning more about ourselves and the world in general. Levitin states that, “we tend to remember things that have an emotional component because our amygdala and neurotransmitters act in concert to ‘tag’ the memories as something important” (p.231).

However, most of us don’t stop listening to new music until we’re well into adulthood. And some never stop.

Schemas

When we’re exposed to a new song, there’s a balance between simplicity and complexity that informs our preferences. Someone well versed in jazz may consider one jazz standard as simple, while an outsider has no frame of reference. This comes down to our level of familiarity with a genre or sub-genre.

“In a sense, schemas are everything. They frame our understanding; they’re the system into which we place the elements and interpretations of an aesthetic object. Schemas inform our cognitive models and expectations” (p. 234).

Songs we all likely find too predictable to be enjoyable include nursery rhymes and those sung by the likes of Raffi and Barney. We enjoy them as children because we haven’t yet built a framework, and they’re simple enough to easily listen to. But once we build a schema for them, they quickly become repetitive and boring.

Songs that we have trouble understanding and appreciating are ones that we lack schemas for. A lot of people say they don’t like jazz, but they really just aren’t familiar with its structure. The same can be said of classical music.

“Each musical genre has its own set of rules and its own form. The more we listen, the more those rules become instantiated in memory. Unfamiliarity with the structure can lead to frustration or simple lack of appreciation” (p. 239).

Safety

Music by its nature is emotional. When done correctly, it puts us in an emotionally vulnerable state, and can change our moods drastically. “We might be understandably reluctant, then, to let down our guard, to drop our emotional defenses, for just anyone” (p. 243).

There is then a certain kind of trust we develop with our favorite musicians. We trust them to take care of us, and deliver a certain kind of emotional experience. “We allow them to control our emotions and even our politics — to lift us up, to bring us down, to comfort us, to inspire us” (p. 243).

This is usually why people tend to get very defensive when they feel their musical tastes are being criticized. Since we’ve developed this personal relationship to a certain song or artist, we feel personally attacked.

Final Thoughts

What we’ve covered here is by no means comprehensive. There’s also a social component to choosing certain genres over others, and overall, Americans will tend to prefer Western music over other music of the world, simply due to the amount of familiarity. But we only have so much space. If you’re interested in learning more, head to your local library and check out a copy of “This Is Your Brain On Music”.

Next time, we’ll finish up our discussion with the final chapter: “The Music Instinct”.

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