5 Ways Your Taste in Music is Scientifically Programmed

No matter how science tries to take the magic out of life, there are certain things that you just can't qualify with data: young love, the joy of holding a puppy, the beauty of a classic song ...

Ah, not so fast on that last one. Research says that the chills you get from a powerful piece of music can be traced back to the build of your mental hardware. For instance ...

#5. Your Brain Is Wired to Recognize "Sad" and "Happy" Notes


You don't need lyrics to know what "sad" music sounds like -- imagine what plays under a funeral scene in a movie. Likewise, you know what triumphant music sounds like, even if the song doesn't feature Joe Esposito explicitly telling you that you're the best around:

But what if you found some natives in the jungle who'd never heard music before? Would they know the difference between the soundtracks of a happy movie scene and a sad one? Yep.

In the same way that we're all programmed to know that babies are cute and spiders are terrible, our brains are also programmed to recognize "sad" and "happy" when it comes to music. The two main chord and scale types are referred to as major and minor. Major chords tend to sound positive and upbeat, while minor chords are spooky and sad. This video shows a pianist playing Beethoven's "Fur Elise," once in A minor (as intended), once in A major. Even though there are only three different notes between the keys, the effect is remarkable. Take a listen:

And here's where it gets weird. Researchers visited a culturally isolated native tribe in Cameroon to see if they had the same perceptions of "happy" and "scary" music as we do. Even though their music was nothing like ours and their civilization had not yet progressed to the Nickelback phase, they identified the emotional core of songs the same way we would. When exposed to piano selections in the major keys, they were more likely to point to pictures of smiling faces; when presented with songs in the minor keys, they were more likely to point to sad or fearful faces.

The really strange thing is that just the act of manipulating yourself into the state that matches the music actually makes you happier, even if the music itself is sad or angry. For example, listening to heavy metal produces the same brain reaction as aggression does, yet subjects are calmer and happier afterward. So how does this relate to you? Well, it's not just that you want sad music when you're feeling sad, and vice versa -- it's something that your brain seeks out.

"I wear this crown of shit ... upon my liar's chair ... full of broken thoughts ... I cannot repair."

Speaking of subconsciously seeking out music that makes us cry ...

#4. There's a Formula for Tearjerkers


If you're a human, we can predict two things about you: You'd rather rip your own ears off than hear the phrase "Honey Boo Boo" again, and the song "Someone Like You" made you almost cry at some point in the last year (don't lie). Not because, like the object of Adele's crazy in the song, you also have a stalker who shows up unannounced at dinnertime to promise to hook up with your doppelganger, but because that song is engineered to trigger a gut reaction:

Twenty years ago, a psychologist decided to break down just what causes certain songs to push our emotional buttons. He first asked people to identify songs that triggered physical reactions from them, and found that almost all the songs used a device called an appoggiatura, which isn't the horrible birth defect it sounds like. An appoggiatura is a note that clashes with the melody, but resolves with another note that brings you back to the song.

For example, remember the chorus of "The Rainbow Connection"? "Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection. The lover, the dreamer and me." (Stop crying! We're going to get through this). The phrasing "Someday we'll find it, the rainbow con- ..." follows this pretty little "da di da di da" pattern. But on "-nec," Kermit hops out of the pattern. The G-sharp note doesn't belong with the F-sharp major chord preceding it. On "-tion," he's back. The return calms you back down and makes you want to call your mom and thank her for all those sandwiches she made you.

Now, the music community is in an absolute uproar over whether or not "Someone Like You" has an appoggiatura in it. NPR music expert Rob Kapilow says that the song is dripping with them, while others say "Think again." But either way, appoggiaturas are only one element of the perfect tearjerker formula. They also start softly and get louder. They abruptly introduce a new instrument or harmony or voice, and they expand instrumentation as the song progresses. "Someone Like You" has all of that.

So why are we compelled to listen to them? Because as we stated before, the act of crying releases dopamine, and everyone loves dopamine. Listening to sad music is just like doing heroin, in other words.

"You'll kill me one day, Jimmy Buffett. But I just can't quit you."

Speaking of heroin ...

#3. You're a Musically Conditioned Addict

In spite of its neural magnificence, your brain is, at its most basic level, a junkie. Whenever you do something good, your brain rewards itself by shooting up some dopamine and getting its fix. A great way for your brain to get blitzed off its ass is to listen to music. This continual rewarding is what encourages you to listen to more music.

So how does this relate to your preferences? Remember Pavlov and his dogs? Since classical conditioning can occur with any external stimulus, your brain can daisy chain something like music to a completely unrelated conditioned response. For example, a parking garage owner in Chicago patented a system where the elevator would play different songs at different floors, which helped customers remember where they had parked their cars. Likewise, how you're feeling when you hear a song can completely affect whether or not you like that song. This conditioning is so strong that once it is ingrained, your brain will actually start seeking out certain types of music so that it can manipulate itself into a desired emotional state.

"I LOVE laundry day! Thanks, ABBA!"

And just like freshmen college students in a coed dorm, this phenomenon can swing both ways; the music you're listening to can influence your mood as much as your mood influences your opinion of the music. If someone advertises a product with a song that you associate with being kicked in the nuts, then you're less likely to like that product, which is why music selection is such a huge part of marketing. More importantly, it means that you don't choose the emotional connection you get from your favorite songs; your subconscious uses memories, imagery, subverted associations with people you haven't thought of in years and straight up voodoo to create a musical imprint of the song.

And if that imprint is good, you'll go back for more. Your conscious self has zero say in the matter. Finally, we've explained how people can stand to listen to __________!*

*In the name of not offending any particular group of readers, feel free to insert an inexplicably popular artist of your choosing into the blank.

Tim Mosenfelder / Getty
What? This is just a totally random picture of music.

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