Brainwaves and Music: Why Some Songs Get Stuck In Your Head And Stay There

“Can’t get you out of my head.” Immortalized as a Kylie Minogue lyric, this profundity was bookended by an endless string of “La-la-las.” With irony as a cheeky backdrop, the song worked. Better still, it’s unforgettable.

Monosyllabism FTW.

And so we arrive at the conundrum that is popular music: what is it about certain songs and certain artists that stick? While seemingly interchangeable artists wither on the vine?

For this, we turn to the obvious pairing of rap music and, um, neuroscience. UGHH sat down with three academics who study music’s effect on the brain—how the brain receives music and, ultimately, what drives our tastes in music. Basically, really smart people who say things like, “I find the intersection of neuroscience and musical cognition to be a particularly compelling area” and author things such as Flexibility of Temporal Order in Musical and Linguistic Recognition.

Polysyllabism FTW.

All kidding aside, those are the sage words of Dr. Brian Rabinovitz, an esteemed researcher and professor of Psychology at American University who specializes in neuropsychology, biological psychology, and cognitive psychology. UGHH also spoke with Dr. Jonathan Burdette, a cutting edge neuroradiologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and co-author of a fascinating study on musical proclivity: Network Science and the Effects of Music Preference on Functional Brain Connectivity: From Beethoven to Eminem. So, yeah. This writer will gladly defer to him. Last but certainly not least, we caught up with Dr. Amy Belfi, a cognitive neuroscientist at NYU who boasts a bevy of publications elucidating the very topic in question: how aesthetic experiences, e.g. listening to music, manifest themselves in the brain.

UGHH thanks these talented professionals for their time and also their good humor. To wit, these conversations yielded gems like: “The second part of your question was…What was the second part of your question? It was unanswerable. I know it was unanswerable.” and “That’s a great question and I have no idea.” And “You stumped me again. You’re going to think I’m an idiot.”—Dr. Jonathan H. Burdette.

[insert writer’s glee].

But let’s get into the meat of the matter, including the physiological truth that music myelinates your brain. Yeah. Myelinates.  Showers in myelin.

How did you initially get into music and how did that segue into your professional pursuit?

Dr. Belfi: I have been into music since my childhood. I played piano and sang in choirs from around age 10 through college. I attended St. Olaf College in part for its great reputation for music. I had contemplated majoring in music before I started college, but an AP Psychology course my senior year got me interested in the brain. So I majored in psychology but still was able to sing and play piano. I started conducting research as an undergrad and decided to pursue a PhD in Neuroscience; luckily, I ended up at the University of Iowa for my PhD. I had a great PhD advisor who allowed me to pursue basically any research interest I wanted. So I chose to study music!

Now, I study music cognition; how music relates to other cognitive functions like language, memory, or emotion. Some of the overarching questions that drive my work are: How does music evoke such strong emotional responses in listeners? Why do we like the music that we like? What is the association between music and personal, autobiographical memories? And some of the things I’m interested in are: studying the emotional impact of music; how listening to a song can transport us to a time from our past; how we develop musical taste or preference for certain songs. 

Dr. Rabinovitz: My musical and academic pursuits did not combine until I began graduate school. As a child I did not have a passion for music, but I loved monsters and I recall being drawn to Iron Maiden’s album cover artwork. I believe I first became interested in their music when I was about 10 years old–purely because of the artwork–but when I heard the harmonized melody lines I was immediately hooked.  Music in many forms and genres has remained a major part of my life ever since. I began my undergraduate studies as a philosophy major. In my senior year I took a Psychology class that introduced me to Neuroscience and the subject matter fascinated me. When I started graduate school, I had the good fortune of working with an advisor who was interested in both music and memory, and this allowed me to combine my interests in music and neuroscience. Now, broadly speaking, I study memory and metamemory, and I aim to further understand the effects of familiarity and individual differences on musical processing.

Dr. Burdette: I grew up in a musical family; my mother pushed music onto us and we all took the bait. I always played music. I sang, I played the viola, I played the piano. And once I had kids I really got into it. So I love music and I’ve also studied the brain. Naturally, the intersection has been an interest of mine. It’s like “What the heck is going on here?” Why is music one of the most powerful forces that we encounter as human beings? There’s very few things, very few stimuli, that activate so many different networks in the brain: cognition, language, motor, sensory, everything. The brain is on fire when you’re listening to music. So my studies have been attempts to reveal what musicologists have studied and continue to study: What is it about music? What’s going on with your brain when you hear certain rhythms or frequencies? What is the impact of worded music versus wordless? And I actually delved beyond that to determine, whether it’s hip-hop you like or if it’s classical music, are you activating the same networks in the brain as someone who likes something else?

What sort of brain activity occurs when music is taken in? How does it differ from responses to other stimuli, meaning via other senses or even via non-melodic noises?

Dr. Rabinovitz: There are essentially two major levels of physiological response to music. First is the lower level, where the ear transforms the sound into neural signals and then sends these signals to the brain. They enter the brain via the primary auditory cortex, an area that performs basic sound processing. This is where the initial creation of our perception of the sound begins. This applies not just for music but for all sounds we hear. The higher level of processing actually uses many areas across the brain and this is where our deeper appreciation for music takes place. The end result of that process is that the sound is transformed into electrical pulses. The brain is composed of cells called neurons and these neurons send messages back and forth in the form of electrical pulses. At this stage the processing becomes very complex and differs from person to person. These individual differences help explain the differences between people’s musical preference. This is where connections are made with memory and feelings. It is this higher level that accounts for individual differences.

Further, research has shown there is an area of the brain that is involved with tracking melodic structure independent of the actual notes. In other words, there is a part of the brain that processes the relationship between notes rather than the notes themselves. This in part explains why we can easily recognize a melody regardless of its key. For instance, if I sing “Happy Birthday” and start it on a C, I could start again on F or G or and you would still be able to recognize it as the same melody. This happens because of higher processing in the brain. When artists repeat melodic lines in different keys, they are taking advantage of this type of processing to provide an interesting change in the song.

What are some generalizations about popular music—meaning what techniques or gimmicks for audience response and receptivity do you hear? Consistency in sonics, key, tempo, etc.?

Dr. Rabinovitz: Repetition is the most obvious factor. Repetition allows for opportunities to transfer a song from short term to long term memory. The chorus of almost every popular song, regardless of style, repeats at least three times and generally more than that. The same can be said for the main verse. Repetition increases familiarity. With repeated listens, you form a memory representation of the song structure and so you are able to predict upcoming passages.

When your predictions are accurate that can produce a positive feeling and is one of the reasons you enjoy a song more with repeated listens. Rap thrives on this with its hooks. But in general, popular music needs to walk a fine line between being interesting and catchy. This is really a battle between simplicity and complexity.

In general, our perceptual systems are excellent at noticing change. With auditory information we may notice change in many areas. One area is dynamics, such as sudden changes in the overall volume or sudden changes in volume within a single instrumental or vocal line. Another area is timbre, which refers to the sound of an instrument. For example, a melody may play once on a guitar, then on a keyboard. We hear that it is the same melody, but by switching instruments there is a noticeable change and change is inherently interesting. The artist has to keep the audience interested for the duration of the track so techniques like this are very valuable.

Another example might be repeating a melody while the drums or backbeat switch to half-time or perhaps double-time. When this happens, we feel the rhythmic shift, although the basic melody has not changed. These types of changes are particularly useful for popular music because artists need to capture the attention of the listener, but avoid being too complex. To be catchy, a song must be appreciated on the first or second listen. If there is too much change the listener may be alienated from the music. Examples of this kind of change might include introducing new melodic lines in every measure, frequently changing time signatures, or utilizing melodic lines that are so long in duration that it is difficult for the listener to keep track of them.

Dr. Belfi: Repetitiveness has a lot to do with memory for songs. Hearing a song or chorus–or hook in the case of rap music–over and over is a good way to remember it. Mode (major or minor) is a pretty large determinant of a song’s valence—valence meaning the emotional quality of a piece, be it positive or negative emotion. So major pieces tend to be perceived as happy, while minor pieces tend to be perceived as sad. But it’s hard to pin down how this relates to memorability, since people are drawn to different things.

Does rap music’s intrinsic spoken component lend itself more reading to memorability than does singing?

Dr. Rabinovitz: That is an excellent question and one that really needs more study to fully answer. Most of the research in this area has focused on lyrics that are sung because they contain both melody and linguistic content. We know that lyrics and melodies are highly interrelated. From a musical perspective, the vocal tracks in rap tend to be less melodic and more rhythmic. From a linguistic perspective, they contain a great deal of information and meaning. A rap song contains significantly more lyrical diversity than a pop song. This meaning can contribute to memorability. Further, if the lyrical content resonates positively with the listener, that will likely drive both repeat listening and memorability. Additionally, rap offers different levels of aggression in both the lyrics and the delivery. Those may combine in ways that attract or repel any particular listener.

Dr. Belfi: To my knowledge, I don’t think there is a ton of research out there in the music cognition world on rap music. However, there are studies that look at melodies paired with lyrics versus just lyrics alone; things tend to be remembered more when they also have a melody. So in that way, I might guess that rap music would be less memorable than music set to a melody. But rap music is very rhythmic, so this added rhythmic complexity might increase the memorability of rap music. It might become almost a motor or muscle memory type thing to repeat back a rap lyric.  

Dr. Burdette: That’s never been studied, as far as I know. It’s never been looked into. But it’s interesting. It’s basically rhythmic poetry. I do believe that dancing and music with groove you can dance to is a powerful feeling and is evolutionarily important. I mean, all those silly hooks in a lot of pop songs are residual dance hooks. Urban music is rhythmic, strongly grooved music. Rhythm is part of our upbringing. It’s second nature for children to enjoy music and to immediately start dancing if they hear music. It’s not until it’s beaten out of them by schooling and society that children really stop doing that.

So, body movement and music are very closely linked. It’s something you grow up with—your musical influences as you’re growing up and myelinating your brain and developing memories and emotions. That connection and the repetitiveness of the construction could definitely contribute. Our study explored the effects of several types of music. Traditionally, people have believed that listening to something with words will leave a different brain signature than listening to something without words. And we showed that this is incorrect; if you liked the Beatles’ “Let it Be” or Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” or Usher, your physiological responses were indistinguishable. Whatever you liked and for whatever reason you liked it, you had a similar brain connectivity pattern.

Are there different responses for music found pleasing straightaway Vs. unpleasant? Does brain activity actually change when a song is met first with dislike, then indifference, to finally preference?

Dr. Belfi: For the first question—yes. Research has indicated that when people find music highly pleasing—often looking at the moment when people experience musical chillsthose feelings of goosebumps—this activates the same brain regions important for other pleasurable activities. So music seems to be a very good way to evoke pleasure and reward. There are several non- mutually exclusive theories about how much evokes emotions. For example, music may evoke emotion though “emotion contagion”—the idea that a listener perceives an emotion in a piece of music and “mimics” that emotion; i.e. it is “contagious.” So if a piece of music is sad, the listener might feel sad; if it’s happy, the listener would feel happy. But, we know that this isn’t always the case. For example, some people enjoy listening to sad music—a powerful symphonic movement or song about lost love, for instance. Music also evokes emotion through its association with personal, autobiographical memories. So hearing a song might remind us of a good time in our life, which makes us feel good.

For the second question: This is something I’m currently looking at in a study I’m conducting. I’m interested in how brain responses unfold over time, as your listening to a piece evolves and your opinions about the piece change. We will have to wait and see!

Dr. Burdette: I can answer that one because that’s exactly what we measured. We played five pieces of music to people sitting in an MRI scanner. One was KISS’ “Rock and Roll All Nite.” One was Usher. One was Brad Paisley. One was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. And one was Chinese opera, which is unusual to Western ears and ultimately sounds weird.

We took everyone’s song that they liked the least—call it the dislike if you will—and looked at their brain patterns. We then compared those results to those recorded while the subjects were listening to their favorite songs. This really illuminated an important, powerful brain network called the Default Mode Network or DMN: It is your place in the world, how you interact with the environment, how you monitor the environment. People consider it the home of introspection or inferential thought, self-referential thought, self-reflective thought. I almost think of it as your soul. When the subjects listened to their least favorite pieces, that network was inert, basically. The anterior parts were not really connected to the posterior parts. It just was not firing, However, subjects listening to their favorite pieces showed tremendous activity in the DMN. The network was fully intact and alive. So we were actually able to illustrate the brain signature of what it is to prefer a piece of music.

Another thing we studied was the connection between your auditory areas—your listening areas of the brain—and the hippocampus, a place where humans encode memories. It’s certainly very involved in memory encoding. What we saw was this:  When listening to your favorite piece, your hippocampus and auditory areas were not in the same community. They were not in harmony, pardon the pun. Whereas if it was not your favorite piece, they were. And you could argue—we did argue—that when it was not your favorite, the listening areas and the memory-making areas were kind of in cahoots in trying to form memories. Whereas if it was one of your favorite pieces, you already had this strong memory component. One didn’t need the other; the hippocampus was kind of off on its own. It really did not play a part. It was retrieving memories, if you will, rather than encoding memories. Those were two big differences between like and dislike.

Dr. Rabinovitz: There are very different responses for music that is perceived as pleasant compared to unpleasant. Certain properties are somewhat universally considered unpleasant—highly dissonant music, for instance. The early stages of auditory processing in which the basic characteristics of the sound are decoded are similar for everyone. At the higher stages where the song is perceived as music rather than just a collection of sounds, you will see differences in brain activity between those who like and dislike the music. Even a single individual may go through a change in terms of this higher processing. Have you ever heard a song you didn’t like at first, but with repeated listens you grew to enjoy or even love it? The basic processing remained the same between your first and last exposure to the song. What changed was your higher order processing. This reflects a known principle in social psychology that familiarity breeds liking. Social psychologists apply this to people, but it can hold true for music as well.

In addition, we also notice change between songs. When you hear a great song and then a mediocre song immediately thereafter, that mediocre song seems even worse than had you listened to it by itself. And if you heard the same songs in the opposite order—first the mediocre one then the great one—that second song would seem better in comparison. This is known as hedonic contrast and has been shown to occur with visual stimuli, like artwork, in addition to music. The fact that we make comparisons between songs makes it important for an artist to select a good order for their tracks on an album. An artist’s worst song should not immediately follow the best song on an album. Of course, an artist can’t control what songs play before their song on a streaming site or radio, so they simply do their best to make every track the best it can be. Ultimately, if we knew the particular formula to make an artist memorable and beloved then everyone would use it, but the world would be a much less interesting place.

UGHH’s Conclusion: It’s probably no coincidence that melodic (read: sing-songy rappers) have a stronger hold on the listener’s ear. Meanwhile, that new school rap song you hated on first listen will become your favorite song if you hear it enough. Do what you will with that information.

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