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.
Read the full New York Times article here.
Following up on my last post about sad music, here’s a great article from the Wall Street Journal about some of the musical secrets behind Adele’s Grammy-winning smash hit “Someone Like You.” Emotionally intense music, whether happy or sad, releases massive amounts of dopamine in the pleasure centers of our brains, acting like a drug and making us yearn for another dose. Intensely sad music behaves just like happy music in this sense—it causes physiological reactions in our brain that keep us coming back for more.
The article also details a couple of musical tricks that help to intensify the emotion, including the humble appoggiatura. In a study 20 years ago, the psychologist John Sloboda found this seemingly minor accent present in 18 out of 20 (unnamed) tear-jerkers. As the song’s co-writer Dan Wilson told Minnesota Public Radio, neither he nor Adele knew what an appoggiatura was when they were working on “Someone Like You.” They used it instinctively. As Wilson said, “Hey, if I had a scientific method for making a heartbreaking hit, I would do it every day… But it’s not so easy.”
Here’s an interesting listen: Why Do We Love Sad Songs? was the topic on the radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge last Sunday. Up for discussion: Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the science behind the minor 3rd, a brief history of country music, and the melancholic sound of Bach’s Cello Suites.
It’s an interesting subject—sad music—especially for a music-psychology geek like myself. What is it about a particular piece of music that makes us feel down? Why is the minor 3rd interval so tied to sad music? And why do we crave depressing music? My friends would probably all describe me as a generally happy person, and yet I love a great sad song. Why?
There’s a good deal of compelling content here, of interest to musicians and non-musicians alike. For example, the minor 3rd is common in sad music, but it’s equally common in speech, especially when we’re feeling gloomy. And the discussion of Adagio for Strings is fascinating, describing the piece’s incredible popularity, and its ability to sustain a single, melancholy emotion for a full eight minutes.
Listen to the audio of the show here: ttbook.org/book/why-do-we-love-sad-songs.