Remember when you were kids, and your parents would get excited or emotional when the favorite songs of their youth would come on? It may have seemed funny then, but surely you can relate to that sentiment today when you have a family of your own. Discovering new music has become easier and more accessible than ever before, with apps like Spotify and Apple Music. We literally have the entire musical world at our fingertips. And yet, scrolling through the options trying to decide what to listen to, most of us will opt for old time favorites.
You may think, ‘well, why risk spending time on something that I don’t enjoy?’ and you’d be right, but there is more to it than that. Apparently, there is a psychological reason for our desire to seek comfort in the familiar. Read on to find out why listening to new music is actually difficult for the brain and why it can make us feel uneasy or even angry.
When the brain receives new information, in this case, a song, it is stored in the long-term memory. The next time you hear the same melody, your brain will be able to match the sound pattern to what it already knows. Recognizing patterns allows us to predict and expect what is coming. In other words, when our brain recognizes new patterns it adapts accordingly, which is what makes humans the intelligent beings that they are.
When it comes to hearing music, a network of nerves in the auditory cortex called the corticofugal network helps catalog the different patterns of music. When a specific sound maps onto a pattern, our brains release a corresponding amount of dopamine, the main chemical source of some of our most intense emotions. This is the essential reason why music triggers such powerful emotional reactions.
In his book, ‘Proust Was a Neuroscientist, the neuroscience lab worker and author Jonah Lehrer explained how the essential joy of music works. As the chords progress, our brain realizes this is a known pattern, and gradually releases just the right amount of dopamine, so it spikes more and more without going off the charts. But when we hear something that hasn’t yet been mapped onto the brain, the corticofugal network is confused, so to speak, and too much dopamine is released as a response. When there is no clear map or pattern to anchor to, music can register as unpleasant. “If the dopamine neurons can’t correlate their firing with outside events,” Lehrer writes, “the brain is unable to make cogent associations.”
One anecdote that proves this theory is the story of one of the most controversial musical debuts in history - Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The orchestral ballet was first performed at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in 1913.
As soon as the show started, the audience felt that this wasn’t what they expected. The Rite began with a solo bassoon so high in its register, that the sound ended up sounding alien and strange. The performance continued in the same fashion, the harmonies and rhythms were too difficult to follow. Soon, the crowd started laughing, then jeering and shouting, some people reportedly even threw vegetables. 40 people simply left the theater in the middle, and needless to say the reviews ripped The Rite to shreds.
But after that chaotic evening, the ballet continued running in the theater for many months. Subsequent performances were packed, and at each one, the opposition lessened. Eventually, these shows ended with ‘vigorous applause’ and Stravinsky was even adored for his creation.
Our brains are wired to reject the unknown. That is why we experience pleasure when driving through our hometown, for example, and why we are so attached to the tunes of our youth. While the act of listening to new music is hard, it is necessary from time to time, to stimulate and literally challenge our brains.
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