Post No.: 0405
Some people worry that trying to critically analyse the things we enjoy that involve feelings and emotions, such as art and music, will ruin their enjoyment for those things. For others, it’ll potentially enrich their experience to uncover any intriguing findings that may underpin how they do the things they do to us.
If you know me by now then you’ll know that I tend to side with the latter group because I’m a very curious pup – as in both inquisitive and strange(!)
…Many people believe that they like a song purely because of its technical musical merits and their own good tastes. But there’s far more to it than that according to research in the area of music and psychology.
Certain patterns of chords or notes can become associated with certain emotions depending on our own personal previous exposures to them. This is why some people will find, for instance, rock music euphoric while others will find it cacophonous. This means that, although all known cultures have music, music is not quite a universal language – our emotional associations are personal (e.g. they depend on what we heard when young and how we felt when we did). What we expect and how we react to certain pieces of music depend on our own personal total lifetime experiences of listening to music so far. (It’ll also depend, of course, on whether one has amusia, tone deafness or some other hearing condition too.)
It’s therefore probably like our personal food tastes – there’s far more to it than just the technical merit of a dish or cuisine, and we tend to prefer foods that are familiar to us, which tend to be the types of stuff we were brought up with and the associations that became personally attached with them during this time. With music, it’d probably be more to do with the influence of our peers when young rather than what our parents fed us though.
Even patterns like songs in minor keys generally feeling sadder is at least in large part cultural, and therefore depend on our own cultural upbringing with music. We may capture the gist of what a piece of music from another culture we’re less familiar with is trying to convey without any prior experience of it but the subtleties may be missed (e.g. regarding country music or fado if we’re new to them).
This process is mostly unconscious rather than conscious – we feel it rather than explicitly know what’s happening to us or why. We experience emotions, as well as emotions about things i.e. things/events are often associated with emotions, according to our expectations, as well as the contexts when we experience them. The emotions of a salient thing/event become associated with any music we hear at the same time or otherwise becomes associated with it. People can even start to like a genre of music they were previously indifferent to, purely because they fancy someone who likes that genre of music, because it becomes associated with that person; albeit an acrimonious break-up could equally make them indifferent once more, again because that music has personally become mostly associated with that person. Songs that aren’t (too) associated with anything else can become specifically associated with a certain TV series, video game, advertisement or film too; just like a theme song.
The emotions we attach to certain songs therefore depend on the expectations they’re associated with, as well as the current context. These expectations play a role in how we interpret the feelings we get from music. The emotions attached to a song can then become associated with any new piece of music that sounds similar to it too, such as music from the same genre or artist. Depending on how we’re feeling, we can be in the mood for certain types of music over others based on these prior experiences and expectations (e.g. there may be a type of music we’ll feel more like listening to when the warm summer days start to come).
What’s possibly happening is that, when we listen to some new music, we’re comparing what happens with what we expect to happen based upon our own lifetime of listening experiences, and if what we hear matches our anticipations, we get a rewarding release of dopamine. We have expectations for when things will happen in music, depending on their genre, and good composers understand these expectations and play with and exploit them. Tensions could be set up and when resolved cause a release – a very overt example, if one likes dance music, is anticipating the bass drop present in some dance tunes (or choons!) and then receiving a dopamine hit when it finally does. But this applies to all parts of a song, from one note or chord to the next.
This is partly why a genre of music we like doesn’t tend to become boring – we unconsciously know what’s expected, but we don’t always exactly know when. It’s familiar yet not predictable – it’s like, for most people, Christmas doesn’t get boring, even though we know we’re expecting fancy food and gifts, which tend to be of pleasant rather than nasty surprises. So it’s not so much breaking but actually meeting our expectations that produces pleasant feelings, and this is why people can enjoy listening to the same song again and again (well up to a point!) It makes sense that unfamiliar sounds in the environment are conversely stress-inducing.
Familiarity breeds liking more than contempt. This is possibly why motifs in film or video game scores work so well too when they become familiar and attached to a certain theme, mood or character in the film or game.
A particular song can remind us of good times hence listening to it again and again can remind us of those good times. Cheesy songs can snare us in this way! We might not want to admit that we like such songs but they’re personally associated with good times, being with friends and happy feelings. And even when we’ve heard a song that we like many times before so that nothing about it is unknown to us anymore, we’re still comparing this song to other songs we’ve heard before. People within the same culture and within the same generation tend to listen to the same set of genres of music as each other, which means that each generation tends to collectively and generally have the same set of experiences of listening to music and what to therefore expect in music.
Now songs can slavishly follow a set formula and work as commercially successful pop songs, but some of the most acclaimed songs will play with our expectations a little regarding the structure, chords, melodies, rhythm, beats, harmonies, arrangement, rhymes, etc.. and in turn play with our emotions. Again it’s like food – some of the most exciting food is familiar yet has a twist – rather than is overly mundanely identical or so radical that it’s totally alien. Some research suggests that a surprise musical change, combined with an increase in amplitude/volume, can produce a frisson effect in some people, which is often accompanied with goosebumps. Surprise or violating our expectations in music can also make songs seem funny or conversely stupid in an unfunny way, just like jokes can.
Some lyrics can seem to speak to us personally because the themes are quite universal and so speak to almost everyone (e.g. love, heartbreak, carefree times, betrayal, loss, friendships, revenge, hope). So if a song feels like it’s been written ‘just for you’, it’s because the lyrical themes are reasonably universal, or you just coincidentally happened to experience the exact same life events, and it clicks with the nuances of what your mind expects. And again, the reasons why you might personally love a particular song also depend on your own very personal experiences of listening to music and the contexts and emotions they’re associated with (e.g. a song reminds you of the time you were on holiday or reminds you of people you’re fond of). At any time, there are usually many different songs in the charts or being released that cover every common emotion, and those that resonate with the emotions we’re currently feeling or have strongly felt will tend to stand out for us.
Our choice of music, according to its tempo and volume, might affect the way we move or drive – faster music can make us exercise more vigorously, and some beats make us want to bob our heads, move our limbs and dance! If we’re in the right mood, our physiology (e.g. heart rate) will be drawn to match the tempo of the music. Music plays a role in strengthening the social bonds of a group, perhaps because everyone being simultaneously engrossed in the same music becomes ‘in tune’ with each other because of their matched heart rates and other physiological rhythms – leading to rapport or collective effervescence. Music is linked with sex and reproduction too. A good singing voice or musical ability is generally seen as attractive in a potential mate. Music can also be used to relieve stress, distract us from pain, and words put into the form of a song can act as a mnemonic.
Music without lyrics, songs we’ve heard many times before and/or music that’s musically simpler, will likely be less distracting than music with lyrics that’s unfamiliar and/or complex. Of course, if you personally don’t like music at all then music will be a distraction for you. (A small percentage of people find no pleasure in listening to music at all – this might be regarded as a disorder?) And the context matters too (e.g. it’s intuitive for many to turn the music down or off when trying to concentrate on one’s work or when lost and trying to find the way – we say we need to ‘hear ourselves think’, and indeed what counts as ‘noise’ as opposed to ‘music’ just depends on what we specifically wish to hear or silence at a given moment).
No one currently knows for sure why ‘earworms’ happen? What song becomes stuck in your head and when is very individual hence it’s not so much about the songs themselves. What increases the chances of a song being ‘hooky’ and getting stuck in our heads are a recent and/or repeated exposure to a tune, and a salient association or lots of associations with a tune that act as memory triggers for it. Stress, surprise, mind-wandering and dreaming are also factors.
Upbeat music can make us feel cheerier. But there’s no strong consensus yet for why (some) people like to listen to sad songs when they feel sad? It’s not like anyone gravitates towards miserable food when they feel miserable(!) It may serve some adaptive function like an (re)appraisal for our emotions, it may be down to the hormones being released when we do, the music’s aesthetic beauty in expressing exactly what we’re feeling, or a combination of these factors. Yet we must remember that although behaviours usually evolve because they’re directly adaptive for survival and reproduction – sometimes behaviours come as the result of some evolved trait over-firing or being exploited by or maladaptively applied to new stimuli, contexts, environments or situations (e.g. modern gambling machines leading to gambling addictions). An over-firing instinct doesn’t need to be harmful though even if it doesn’t aid a specie’s survival or reproduction (e.g. sex is good for the species but masturbation is arguably neither good nor bad – all else being equal, you won’t die if you do or don’t masturbate hence it doesn’t get selected out).
So, as of posting, there are still lots of questions left to answer in the field of music and psychology.
As a dog, some high-pitched sounds make me want to howl but I do personally like all kinds of music, including classical music because, according to the quip, dogs like Puccini and Bach…