Just why do we like music? Can it be easily explained?
The science of music fascinates me. Ever since I was told that I have perfect pitch, I wanted to understand why each of us hears things differently. I wanted to know if tone deaf people enjoyed music the same way I did. I wanted to know why some people were tone deaf and what were my best options for keeping them away from me during a sing-along. I wanted to know how experience with music changes our taste in it.
According to this Abstract on ScienceDirect, when we're listening to music, our brain is predicting where the melody is going to go.
The paper consists of a computational model and and an experiment. The model essentially demonstrated that statistical predictions based on our personal listening experience - because I listen to Bruce Springsteen, I'm able to predict the melodies of John Mellencamp - was much better at simulating the mind than a rule-based model, in which our expectations are fixed and inflexible.
Basically, since almost all music has been based on a traditional Western tuning since the 1600s, we've gotten quite used to it. We know how melodies usually go in terms of phrasing and structure. If you think about it, there are a finite number of melodies that we can create since we limited to 12 notes (traditionally speaking). Melodies are bound to repeat themselves. Sounds depressing, does it?
The experiment was more compelling. The scientists measured the brain waves of a twenty subjects while they listened to various hymns. It turned out that unexpected notes - pitches that violated the previous melodic pattern - triggered an interesting sequence of neural events and a spike in brain activity.
More than just a violation in a melodic patter, I believe when the function of a note (in a certain key) changes, a spike in brain activity would occur. Leaning notes or passing notes would be examples of a change in a melodic pattern. But a change in harmony while keeping the melody pattern the same would then change where the note would fall in the implied new key. Jobim's "One Note Samba" is a good example of this.
There are two interesting takeaways from this experiment. The first is that music hijacks some very fundamental neural mechanisms. The brain is designed to learn by association: if this, then that. Music works by subtly toying with our expected associations, enticing us to make predictions about what note will come next, and then confronting us with our prediction errors. In other words, every melody manipulates the same essential mechanisms we use to make sense of reality.
So somehow, through our exposure to music, we've learned that there are patterns to melody. We subconsciously know were melodies are supposed to go. Does hearing what we anticipate gives us a sense of satisfaction?
The second takeaway is that music requires surprise, the dissonance of "low-probability notes". While most people think about music in terms of aesthetic beauty - we like pretty consonant pitches arranged in pretty patterns - that's exactly backwards. The point of the prettiness is to set up the surprise, to frame the deviance. (That's why the unexpected pitches triggered the most brain activity, synchronizing the activity of brain regions involved in motor movement and emotion.)
Ah! It's the surprise that we like! I would like to add that finding the melodic "home" after a deviance does bring about that sense of satisfaction. Just the other day, I was talking to my hubby about something similar to this. I told him how much I enjoyed dissonance in music and how it was necessary in order feel a sense of resolution.
Can we enjoy music if we are not stimulated? Sure. Even I like some Bananarama every once in a while. But constantly listening to music that doesn't deviate from a diatonic scale would start to bore me quickly. To me, there are different ways to listen to music, some ways are more active than others. I believe musicians and listeners who innately understand music function and structure tend to be more active in their music listening even when they are not aware of it.
And just who supplies my brain activity fix? Classically, it's Debussy and Poulenc. In popular music, to name a few, it's Basia, The Bird and the Bee, Brenda Russel, Carly Simon, Goldfrapp, k.d. lang, Kate Bush, Seal, Swing Out Sister, Vanessa Daou, Wendy & Lisa... (I know, I said a few. Sorry! There are so many more I want to mention...)
In terms of popular music, I guess my years of music training have jaded me a little. For my "active" listening, I've become an "album track" guy. I gravitate towards the songs that the A&R guys don't release. I appreciate a good verse more than a predictable chorus. I enjoy the suspension of a bridge (pun intended!) before it settles into something familiar. And most of all, I savor a great middle section that takes a grand departure!