The amazing neuroscience of why music is actually rewarding to the brain
Listening to music is an “intellectual” reward, which results from interactions between subcortical dopaminergic regions involved in forming predictions that we share with other animals, and cortically stored templates of previously heard music that are unique to each individual, along with some of the most evolved parts of the cerebral cortex involved in complex pattern recognition and sequencing. These regions ultimately work together to assign reward value to an abstract stimulus.
A new study reveals what happens in our brain when we decide to purchase a piece of music when we hear it for the first time. The study, conducted at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital – The Neuro, McGill University and published in the journal Science on April 12, pinpoints the specific brain activity that makes new music rewarding and predicts the decision to purchase music.
"On a really great day, it feels like I and the band are the music," said Death Cab for Cutie front man Ben Gibbard about performing live. "I feel it on a very spiritual level."
Musicians, of course, are excused for, even expected to talk like this. Sex and drugs and rock and roll, and all that.
But if you’re familiar with the concept of flow, you’ll notice that Gibbard’s description of a great show sounds like athletes’ descriptions of a great training session or competition — total immersion in the task such that the barrier between actor and act disappears. According to a study published in Evolutionary Psychology, there’s more than a metaphorical match between Gibbard’s in-the-moment music making and the pleasing wash of a good workout. Performing music, the study’s authors say, releases endorphins, the body’s natural opiates responsible for the famous runner’s high.
The neuroscience of karaoke: How to stay on key when singing
If you’ve ever done Karaoke, then you know how horribly some people sing, especially when the background music is too loud for them to hear themselves. The ability to adjust to the environment is essential for all sensory systems, which use feedback mechanisms to modify behavior. Usually the environmental cues are contaminated by noise, so your brain has to decide whether to modify behavior based on sensory feedback (and risk “adapting” to signals that do not accurately reflect performance) or to ignore sensory input (and risk leaving errors uncorrected). So, how does your brain deal with this mismatch between the actual and expected sensory feedback, so you can have a better Karaoke performance?
Johanna Sänger of Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for Human Development gathered 32 guitarists and arranged them in pairs to play Sonata in G Major by Christian Gottlieb Scheidler. Each musician was hooked up to electrodes, so Sänger and her team could monitor their brain activity the 60 times they were asked to play the composition. An earlier study from the Institute had already demonstrated that guitarists playing the exact same tune begin to share brainwave patterns. However, in this study Sänger asked the musicians to play different parts from the same piece of music. As well as playing totally different notes, one was asked to take the lead and set the tempo for the other to follow. Her hypothesis was that, if the brainwave patterns again aligned, then it would demonstrate they have an inherently important role in musicians’ “interpersonally coordinated behaviour” — or, their ability to play well as a pair. All pairs did in fact present with synchronised brain oscillations.
"When people coordinate their own actions, small networks between brain regions are formed," said Sänger. "But we also observed similar network properties between the brains of the individual players, especially when mutual coordination is very important; for example at the joint onset of a piece of music."
The synchronisation is known as “phase locking”, and took place largely where the frontal and central electrodes were placed (the frontal lobe is responsible for retaining long term memory, aligning emotion memory with social norms and predicting an action’s consequences).
At the link is a fantastic video interview with Alan produced by BBC News.
Says Alan of the way in which Hallelujah is so deftly able to channel both life’s exquisite pain and beauty: “Even when you suffer the pain and heartbreak that life throws at you, in the end, you still have to kind of stand in wonder at life, and at living.”
Musicians with perfect pitch have more autistic traits
Perfect pitch, also known as absolute pitch (AP), refers to the rare ability to identify or produce a musical tone correctly without the benefit of an external reference. AP is often considered to reflect musical giftedness, but it has also been associated with certain disabilities due to increased prevalence of AP in individuals with sensory and developmental disorders. Here, we determine whether individual autistic traits are present in people with AP.
We quantified subclinical levels of autism traits using the Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ) in three matched groups of subjects: 16 musicians with AP (APs), 18 musicians without AP (non-APs), and 16 non-musicians. In addition, we measured AP ability by a pitch identification test with sine wave tones and piano tones.
We found a significantly higher degree of autism traits in APs than in non-APs and non-musicians, and autism scores were significantly correlated with pitch identification scores (r = .46, p = .003). However, our results showed that APs did not differ from non-APs on diagnostically crucial social and communicative domain scores and their total AQ scores were well below clinical thresholds for autism. Group differences emerged on the imagination and attention switching subscales of the AQ. Thus, whilst these findings do link AP with autism, they also show that AP ability is most strongly associated with personality traits that vary widely within the normal population.
But art to-day must be pursued like everything else, by steam. Artists are turned out in factories, that is, in so-called conservatories, or by teachers who give lessons ten or twelve hours a day. In two years they receive a certificate of competence, or at least the diploma of the factory. The latter, especially, I consider a crime, that the state should prohibit. All the inflexibility and unskillfulness, mistakes and deficiencies, which were formerly disclosed during a long course of study, do not appear now, under the factory system, until the student’s public career has begun. There can be no question of correcting them, for there is no time, no teacher, no critic; and the executant has learned nothing, absolutely nothing, whereby he could undertake to distinguish or correct them.
Why perceived vocal effort makes certain songs catchier than others
“We’ve discovered that there’s a science behind the sing-along and a special combination of neuroscience, maths and cognitive psychology can produce the elusive elixir of the perfect sing-along song. We hope that our study will inspire musicians of the future to crack the equation for the textbook tune.”
Musicologist Dr. Alison Pawley and psychologist Dr. Daniel Mullensiefen out at the University of London came to the conclusion that there are four traits that make a song catchy:
Longer and detailed musical phrases. The breath a vocalist takes as they sing a line is crucial to creating a sing-along-able tune. The longer a vocal in one breath, the more likely we are to sing along.
Higher number of pitches in the chorus hook. The more sounds there are, the more infectious a song becomes. Combining longer musical phrases and a hook over three different pitches was found to be key to sing-along success.
Male vocalists. Singing along to a song may be a subconscious war cry, tapping into an inherent tribal part of our consciousness. Psychologically we look to men to lead us into battle, so it could be in our intuitive nature to follow male-fronted songs.
Higher male voices with noticeable vocal effort. This indicates high energy and purpose, particularly when combined with a smaller vocal range (Freddie Mercury of Queen and Jon Bon Jovi).