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Thursday
Oct 23 2014

Why You Think Today's Music Sucks...It Comes Down to Neurochemistry

If you're reading this chances are you're a music fan. You may have very particular or very broad tastes; you may love the way it makes you feel or you may not even really care why you love music. But there's no getting around the fact that to varying degrees, you and every person you have ever met has a deep, personal relationship with music. There's a scientific reason for this.

One of the more profound books I've read is Dr. Daniel Levitin 's . Dr. Levitin is a musician and a neuroscientist and in this book he posits the theory that our musical brains actually guided our human societal development. In short, where we came from and where we are now, culturally speaking, is a direct result of the strong interconnection between our musical brains and our intellects.

Dividing song types into songs of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love, Levitin takes us on a journey from Beethoven to the Beatles to Busta Rhymes as he examines the evolution of language, culture and consciousness. This is all because our human brains are hardwired to be musical. It is really a fascinating read.

Now Let's Talk About Why You Think Today's Music Sucks

In a review published ( April 2013, Vol 17, No 4 ) written by and Dr. Levitin, the authors report on the connection between brain chemistry and music.

Music can evoke a wide variety of strong emotions, including joy, sadness, fear, and peacefulness or tranquility , and people cite emotional impact and regulation as two of the main reasons why they listen to music . Music can produce feelings of intense pleasure or euphoria in the listener , sometimes experienced as ‘thrills’ or ‘chillsdown-the spine.’

In short, music acts on our brains in the same way opiates and other drugs act on our brains, except without the addictive properties. It also excites the pre-frontal cortex associated with memory. So, when you're a kid, running around the neighborhood doing kid stuff, you're filled with all kinds of hormones like oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin coursing through you mesocortolimbic system and ventral striatum, and other cool brain places that respond to rewards like joy and happiness, as well as sadness and rejection like when that gorgeous girl three blocks over made you wait outside for an hour on a November night before coming out and telling you she's going out with some 6'2" football troglodyte as opposed to a skinny 5'9" long-haired type who really doesn't like gym all that much. ( But no hard feelings or anything ) Digression notwithstanding, this means the music you were listening to while your brain was developing became hard-wired in your memory system, and hearing those songs brings back memories that are more intense than those memories built by hearing a similarly good song while in your thirties or forties.

My conclusion, which may not be the same as the conclusion reached by the smart people who wrote the review, is that you think music sucks today because your brain already has intense musical memories that are personal to you and your particular journey. So lighten up on the kids a bit and let them fill up their pre-frontal cortexes (cortices?) with their own memories and emotions ( as long as they stay off my lawn! ). That may also be the reason why the best audience and largest consumers of music are people in their late teens and early twenties

Happy Song/Sad Song

When I'm not reading books I barely understand about subjects I can scarcely conceive, I watch clever YouTube videos by the Gregory Brothers . In this favorite, the Brothers Gregory do a mash-up (we used to call them 'medleys') of happy songs played in minor keys to make them sad, and sad songs played in major keys to make them happy. It's more interesting than you think...

Although the aim of the video is to be funny and entertaining just for entertainment's sake (not a bad thing), there's something deeper here: The way the chords and notes intertwine with the emotion of the singer has a profound effect on the chemistry in our brains. Changing something as physically minor as the key the song is performed in drastically changes the entire emotional conveyance within the song. This is a result of our brain's interpretation of what it's hearing.

From Levitin and Chanda's report:

Musical pleasure is closely related to the intensity of emotional arousal. Even opposite emotional valences (e.g., ‘happy’ or ‘sad’) can be experienced as pleasurable and listeners often report that the most moving music evokes two or more emotions at once. Music does not have the clear survival benefit associated with food or sex, nor does it display the addictive properties associated with drugs of abuse. Nonetheless, the average person spends a considerable amount of time listening to music, regarding it as one of life’s most enjoyable activities.

That's why songs from your youth that are associated with sad memories or tough times bring you such peacefulness and happiness when you hear them now.

At it's very core, music is emotion and a very personal experience, much like our own emotions are. In the past ten years or so we have seen an explosion of music in our environments that has made music become depersonalized while at the same time it became ubiquitous. If something is powerful enough to actually change the chemistry in our brains, shouldn't it deserve a higher place in our lives than background noise? Or worse yet, a tool to drown out background noise?

As Chanda and Dr. Levitin put it:

Many believe that music has special, mystical properties and that its effects are not readily reducible to a neuronal or neurochemical state. Advances in cognitive neuroscience have challenged this view, with evidence that music affects the same neurochemical systems of reward as other reinforcing stimuli.

All of that being said, I still think music is special and mystical, and even though I dig the science behind the report, I'd just as soon keep it that way.

Jack Sharkey for KEF

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