Thank you for the music: the science behind the songs

Digital, Featured, Science, Technology 2019-12-04

Music has always been a huge part of my life. People use it as a cure-all medicine, adding a musical narration to their day while they’re running, studying or even blog-post writing. It’s used in films to help direct the viewers’ emotion, and in advertising to ensure you can’t get that ridiculous jingle out of your head. But just why do certain melodies stick around for so long in the memory, and why did we hate to love every time Carly Rae Jepson told us to ‘call her maybe’? In this post, we will look at the brain’s relationship with music, and explore the question: is music actually a scientific industry?

It was Einstein who once said “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician,” and that he often dreamt in music. It was this that ignited my curiosity towards melody, and spurred me on to study the origins of how particular sounds evoke a positive response from humans.

We may think we are simply listening to a song, but in fact the effects from listening to music are vast, both psychologically and physically. Studies show that when listening to music, we produce brainwaves in response to the beat. These can determine how alert we are and how well we concentrate on the task at hand, while also increasing the level of pleasure we experience. If you’re studying, research even suggests that music can boost your enjoyment and concentration during those long library sessions. However, before you turn on a playlist of absolute bangers, consider the volume and tempo of your tunes, as studies indicate moderate noise levels and songs with less than 145 beats-per-minute are the creative sweet spots (my apologies to loud DnB).

Nevertheless, blasting these high bpm genres can have a significant impact on our ability to exercise. One study showed that cyclists pedalled quicker when subjected to music compared to those who pedalled in silence. This is because music can override our brain’s signals of fatigue. This phenomenon is also observed physiologically – cyclists listening to music in a study were shown to require far less oxygen than the control group. There are those who call music ‘a drug’, and from that example, one might be inclined to agree.

Beyond studying or exercising, music is all around us. Adverts, for example, use music with the same result. I’m certain that at some point in your life, perhaps without realising it, you’ve picked a product up because of an incredible advertising campaign that stuck with you. For many of us growing up in the noughties, it was THAT Evergreen advert. ‘Cheer up Evergreen’, a gleeful Monkees parody, sung by a cartoon frog and his pals, made me want a lush and green lawn (despite the fact I was only 12 and had no interest in gardening). This marketing tactic plays on the knowledge that music can significantly impact the viewer’s emotional response.

The same approach is taken in film and television. Boy meets girl; upbeat guitar. The lead character loses a loved one to cancer; melancholic piano. HE’S COMING TO GET YOU; discordant strings. Film soundtracks are used to bring us into the action, help us to identify with the characters, and to make our experience more interactive. A related study showed that music influences our perceptions, causing a group to identify neutral facial expressions as happy or sad depending on the music played.

Playing on emotion is something the film and music industry have in common. Is there a certain song that gives you chills every time? For me, it’s Andrea Bocelli hitting and holding a gorgeous high note whilst a choir backs him up. Everyone has their own, but what about those songs that make every hair stand on end and trigger a full body frisson? Again, it’s a reaction provoked in our brains. We continually process melodies and repetition in music while we listen to it, and can experience chills whenever something unexpected happens that we enjoy. Westlife accomplished this with key changes in the last chorus, and so did Whitney when she hit that famous note in I Will Always Love You. These unanticipated elements cause nerve fibres between your auditory and anterior insular cortexes – which process sound and emotion, respectively – to quiver.

That repetition that our brain seeks out in music is also the reason why you can’t get certain songs out of your head. Our brains love repetition, and experience positive psychological effects when they encounter something familiar, such as a catchy chorus line or beat. This is known as the ‘exposure effect’. Oddly enough, this effect is so powerful it can even overcome our own musical tastes, meaning it could be a while before the melody from Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’ or anything by Taylor Swift leave your head. Making you unable to ‘Shake It Off’ – I’m so sorry.

However, almost as quickly as something grows familiar, it can become over-familiar. Studies show that the brain has a threshold for positive response. Returning to the example of Whitney’s high note, in this case the brain anticipates the build-up and triggers the release of endorphins. The more we overplay a song, the fewer endorphins we release at its climax. And the more simplistic the song is, the quicker the threshold for positive response is reached.

This helps to explain the popularity of songs such as Bohemian Rhapsody, which is chock full of climactic points, tempo changes and repetition in both lyrics and beat. If music is a science, perhaps Queen used their own ‘Golden Ratio’ to create something that will stick with us for generations to come.