Ask a Scientist

Courtesy of The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Do you pop, lock, and drop it, or do you swing to the rhythm of love? Do you twist and shout or do the stanky leg? Or maybe you just prefer to chill out to some jazzy beats. Or maybe a combination of all of these; you know, different moods call for different music. 

But why? What is it about music that makes it such a big part of our lives? And how do we develop a preference for different music? And what the heck makes live music so enticing when nowadays we can just listen to songs anywhere? That last question I might be asking because I really need to stop spending money on concerts.

It’s not a coincidence that every grocery and clothing store plays music in the background and every car comes equipped with a radio. There’s a reason music is played at just about every celebration and ceremony and the record player, boom box, 8-track, CD player and iPods became the phenomenona they are. We like it, that’s a given.

But is it something that we enjoy, or is there more to it than that? Turns out that music has been scientifically shown to be anecessity in our lives. Music has been shown to exercise the brain in different levels of thinking, often without us even realizing it. It can help us focus, without ever focusing on the music itself: like studying with music for example. It’s been shown that students’ minds tend to wander in silence, and music can actually help them come back to present focus and concentrate on their work. It has even been shown thatmusic lessons can enhance IQ.

So, all this makes splurging on concerts a justified part of my intelligence and well-being, right?

I’m going to go with that.

But on a deeper level, the science of music and the interaction between music and our brain is a surprisingly complex field of study. Music is not a tangible art like painting or film-making. We cannot continuously look at it, ponder and contemplate our emotions. It’s in the moment, and then it’s gone. Our emotions are subjected to these sounds, and we feel sometimes extreme emotions, and it’s hard to predict why, how and to what extent we feel these emotions.

But what makes up music anyway? How do we recognize music as music and not just a bunch of sounds?

There are some major components of music that generally summarize how music is composed. The first is pitch, which is thenumber of cycles a sound vibrates per second. The more cycles the sound-wave has in a given period of time, the higher pitch it is. Different pitches played in a sequence develop a melody. Overlaying multiple pitches simultaneously can create a harmony. Together with the speed of these arranged pitches, or tempo, of the sounds being played, all these elements creates a rhythm, essentially a noticeable pattern sound.

And it’s this rhythm that’s key for us to distinguish music from random sounds.This organization of sounds allows us to determine when we are listening to music. Even simple patterns of sound can sound musical – which totally explains why I hear and create musical beats whenever I have my car blinker on for a long time.

While no one is going to be jamming out to my car’s turn signal remix, some songs get a lot of people’s interest. How does music become popular? Why is some music successful in terms of mass popularity, while some music appeals to a very niche audience? I mean, I’m pretty sure Ariana Grande is selling a lot more concert tickets than your neighbor’s 2000’s emo cover band. What gives?

According to Laurel Trainor, director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind, Music is conceived by our brains, played through our bodies, perceived through our sensory organs and then interpreted by our brains.” This means that the way we process music is not solely through our brains, but our entire bodies. This can explain why sometimes we, uncontrollably, have to bop our heads, tap our feet or straight out get down to a song!

And because listening to music is a full-body experience, our ability to interpret music is affected by bodily constraints, mainly in the form of our brain and ears—or more specifically, our neural systems and authority processes.

Neural connections form from childhood to create neural networks. Our genetic makeup, as well as childhood experiences, control the development and characteristics of these networks. This is why certain sounds elicit certain emotions in us: take loud, sharp noises versus soft lullaby sounds. When listening to unfamiliar music, we use these developed neural networks that elicit certain emotions to help us comprehend what we are hearing. This is another tactic that helps us distinguish sounds as “noise” or “music.”

Also, due to evolving cultural differences in regions around the world, these networks change, evolving to mirror linguistic sounds and vibrations. Once these networks are established, thereward chemical dopamine is released when we hear certain sounds and rhythms and can also contribute to our positive response to music. This can be seen, for example, when we hear the 1st verse of a song that leads to anticipation of the catchy chorus or listening to a buildup of music that makes us excited for that bass drop. That drop gives us a spike of dopamine.

But what makes this different than the dopamine reward obtained from eating or shopping, is that this reward mechanism is abstract: it doesn’t involve a tangible reward, rather we are subjected to a “combined sensory and cognitive experience.” And yeah, this sounds like you’d hear this tidbit from someone wearing tie-dye with “The Grateful Dead” playing in the background, but it’s not just spiritual mumbo-jumbo.

Our perception of music affects our emotions and our experiences, but it can go in reverse to; our emotions affect the way we listen to music.

Have you ever been in a sensitive state while listening to an emotional song and strangely feel connected to it in a way you haven’t before? Guilty. This is because the listener, and their moods memories and experiences, have a lot to do with the psychological outcome of listening to music.

Moreover, the social context in which we listen to music plays a significant role in how we internalize music. Just imagining listening to a love song while driving versus slow-dancing with a significant other. Or listening to electronic music while studying versus at a rave with flashing colored lights surrounding you. This is why concerts can be so enticing. They offer a social immersion that changes how we perceive the musicin a way that listening to a song in the car just doesn’t get. And that’s music to my ears!

So overall, music is a defining part of how we live our lives in ways that researchers still have yet to completely understand. What is known though, is that music is an integral part in how we feel and communicate with others on a daily basis that’s formed by noticeable, often intricate, patterns of sound we identify with in an objective and subjective way. Knowing all of this, I am now going to hit the books hard for finals week, but with some nice tunes to accompany me (knowing that it can scientifically help my focus!).

If you’d like, let us know in the comments below what your favorite music is that you like to listen to while studying. We can always use some more study music in our lives!

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