Because I’m a bit of a nerd about this stuff, here’s another interesting tidbit on the psychology of music, this time from none other than the New York Times. “Why Music Makes Our Brains Sing” focuses on why it is we humans love music so much and what exactly we get out of listening to it. Turns out it’s the same thing we get from food, sex and drugs: everyone’s favorite neurotransmitter, dopamine.
The interesting part is that we get rewarded not only for the emotional highs in a piece of music, but also when we anticipate them. This is why good music needs to strike a balance between predictable patterns and moments of surprise—when the listener correctly anticipates a climactic moment, their brain gives them a reward. But too many moments of predictability and the song becomes boring. Like a good story, there need to be some clever twists to throw the listener off and make them work a bit, and that gives you more pleasure when your predictions are correct.
There’s a lot of other research out there lately saying similar things, so this isn’t exactly new information. But like it or not, we as composers are in the reward business, so the more you understand how and why music affects us, the better you’ll be at affecting your listeners. If you’re interested in reading more about music and the brain, I highly recommend Daniel J. Levitin’s excellent book, This Is Your Brain on Music.