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.
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 ...

Your Brain Is Wired to Recognize "Sad" and "Happy" Notes

5 Ways Your Taste in Music is Scientifically Programmed

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.

5 Ways Your Taste in Music is Scientifically Programmed

"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 ...

There's a Formula for Tearjerkers

5 Ways Your Taste in Music is Scientifically Programmed

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 ...

You're a Musically Conditioned Addict

5 Ways Your Taste in Music is Scientifically Programmed

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.

5 Ways Your Taste in Music is Scientifically Programmed

"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.

Your Music Preferences Are Sealed by Adolescence

5 Ways Your Taste in Music is Scientifically Programmed

Imagine if everything you said, did or liked by age 18 was stuck with you forever. Your clothes, hairstyle and friends, and that stupid nickname you gave yourself -- all permanently tattooed on your adult self for the whole world to see and mock. How many of us would be walking around with lopsided Salt-n-Pepa hair and insisting that everyone call us "Spinderella Jr.?" It's not a pretty picture.

Fortunately, we mature. But there is one area where neuroscientist and music expert Daniel Levitin thinks we're permanently marked before we hit voting age: our music preferences.

5 Ways Your Taste in Music is Scientifically Programmed
Joe Raedle / Getty

Once again, don't look at us like that. It's just a totally random image of music and voting.

You already probably know that there are certain things that are much easier to learn as a kid than as an adult (like, say, a foreign language). There is a point when your brain gets a little more set in its ways. But when your brain is new and still developing, it's constantly creating new and different neural pathways to perform all the mental tasks that will be required of it throughout your life. So your parents' musical preferences, whatever is on the radio, the rinky-dinky songs your preschool teacher taught you -- anything is fair game to form the foundation that will be your musical taste. And your brain pays attention, developing neural pathways to recognize the music of your culture. At age 10, you start to bonk out the music that doesn't fit in with your recognizable scheme of "good" music. At age 12, you begin to use those newly formed tastes to figure out your place in the world ("You will know us by our SPIN DOCTORS T-shirts!"). By 14, for the most part, your musical preferences are a done deal.

As evidence, one music critic points to the biggest music icons of the past 50 years to bear this fact out. Both Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney were 14 when they were first exposed to Elvis, and both cited that exposure as the fuse that lit their world-changing careers. When the Beatles hit The Ed Sullivan Show, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Billy Joel were all age 14, presumably watching it on TV.

5 Ways Your Taste in Music is Scientifically Programmed
Adam Rountree / Getty

Researchers are still trying to figure out what the hell Dee Snider accidentally watched.

Of course, these could be chalked up as fun coincidences used to illustrate a point. But think back on what you were listening to when you were 14 -- is it that much different from what you listen to now? Maybe a little more juvenile, maybe a little more Limp Bizkitty, but you probably haven't done a 180 and completely abandoned the genre of music you loved as a teen. If you were a hip-hop fan then, there's a good chance you still are one now.

The Music Industry Has Pop Down to a Bland, Loud Formula

5 Ways Your Taste in Music is Scientifically Programmed
Isaac Brekken / Getty

We would never try to make a judgment call about the quality of modern music -- we're not that old (yet). But the fact is that pop music has grown more and more homogenized over the last 50 years, and there's science to prove it. There's even a graph.

5 Ways Your Taste in Music is Scientifically Programmed
Nick Harvey / Getty

There's also this.

The Million Song Dataset uses algorithms to analyze pop songs recorded since 1955. The music bot evaluates songs based on things like loudness, note diversity, chord progression and tempo. What Musical Johnny 5 discovered was that musicians today are copycats, and they're sounding more and more alike every year. Once you break down individual elements, a pattern emerges. Even though the data set is examining a variety of pop genres, such as rock, hip-hop and metal, the trend is very clear: less variety, more loudness. Just as your grandparents suspected. In fact, researchers have concluded that modern listeners have now been trained to associate loudness with novelty:

"Hence, an old tune with slightly simpler chord progressions, new instrument sonorities that were in agreement with current tendencies, and recorded with modern techniques that allowed for increased loudness levels could be easily perceived as novel, fashionable and groundbreaking."

That's right; they think we're so stupid that we won't recognize an oldie if it's updated and loud enough. And do you know who was the king of creativity in the music department? The baby boomers. The same generation that gave us yuppies, the Social Security crisis and polyester pantsuits were once on the forefront of musical creativity, and no one has topped them since. Here's the aforementioned chart, which shows "timbral variety," or diversity of sounds present in pop songs since 1955:

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000
Discover Magazine

"This has never happened before, we swear!"

Those outliers are probably punk, rap and David Byrne just existing in a room somewhere. So think about 1950s music for a minute. You might imagine guys in matching suits, harmonizing and swaying softly while poodle-skirted girls hula hoop in the background and Sputnik yo-yos. Dick Clark might be in the mix somewhere, depending on how much imagination you have. But according to analysis produced by the Million Song Dataset, that white bread music was still more imaginative than whatever you're hearing on the radio or streaming now. The only difference is that your music is probably louder. Once pop reached its zenith in the 1960s, when musicians were literally using bell bottoms, cannabis and face paint as instruments, music slowly got less diverse.

Now remember what we said about how your musical tastes are locked in early; if this is what you were raised on, it's what you'll keep looking for the rest of your life -- anything outside of that narrow range of sounds seems weird or wrong. It's kind of hard to branch out and be experimental when your audience has been trained over the course of a generation to only recognize certain sounds as being "good." They don't have bad taste; they're just slaves to biology. But at least that explains the success of __________!

5 Ways Your Taste in Music is Scientifically Programmed


Chris writes for his website and tweets. You can contact him at raddystuition@gmail.com. You can find Kristi on Twitter and Tumblr.

For more mysteries science has sucked the fun out of, check out 7 Famous 'Unsolved' Mysteries (Science Solved Years Ago). Or discover 6 Reasons Assholes Are Healthier (According to Science).

If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out The 6 Types of People Who Tweet Directly to the Candidates.

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