This is your brain on music

I’ve been reading a very interesting book clearly called “This Is Your Brain on Music.” The crux of the book is examining how our brains process and understand music, but the scope is actually much broader and more interesting than that, getting into what makes certain instruments sound different from others, evolutionary psychology and a whole host of topics. There’s even a section delving into why we like the music we like, providing useful ammunition for anyone who’s ever gotten into an argument with someone else about the merits of this or that band or song.

I think the most important message I’ve taken away from this book is this: it’s okay to be bored with music. I think we’ve all had music foisted upon us which, we are told, is supposed to be the height of mankind’s artistic development and we’ve sat there hiding our yawns (most of Opera for me.) So why are we bored? Well, the book explains what it is about music that catches our ears (or doesn’t.) One interesting point the author makes is that music is akin to a game or puzzle. As a song goes along, we are making predictions (sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously) as to what’s coming next — what note is this melody going to arrive at, when do we get to the chorus etc. When we predict correctly, we get a certain pleasure at being right, and when a song foils our prediction in an interesting way, we get intrigued.

However, like games, complexity is an issue. Games that are too simple bore us, as do games that are too complex. The same can be said for music. Songs that seem utterly predictable in melody, harmony, structure and even timber grow tiresome. None of us listen to children’s songs anymore. (This is a point I made several months ago in my now well respected article “Nippleclamps and Beethoven.) On the flipside, music that is so complex that we have no idea where it’s going — this is jazz for a lot of people, it’s a lot of classical music and foreign music for me — also tires us.

This matches with my general experiences listening to music. There’s music I first heard 20 years ago that I found unapproachable — it made no sense to me — that I now love. Inversely, as I listen back to some of the music in my youth, while I don’t dislike it, I feel like I’ve moved past it, it doesn’t have much to offer any more.

Interestingly, there are people with a condition called “amusia” who simply don’t have the ability to even process music. To them, music sounds like random noises. Humanity would do well to conduct open brain studies on these people, without anesthetic, to see what makes them tick.

3 Responses to “This is your brain on music”

  1. John Saleeby

    I think I have Amusia when it comes to listening to people speak.

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