Musings on music

Emma Young digests the research.

Music and humans go back a very long way. The earliest accepted instruments, made from bones, appear on the European scene about 40,000 years ago. But for perhaps at least a million years before that, our ancestors had the throat architecture that in theory would have allowed them to sing. All kinds of ideas have been put forward for why and how music came to matter so much to us. But what’s abundantly clear is that it does matter; there isn’t a society out there that doesn’t make and listen to music. And new research is now revealing all manner of psychological and neurological effects…

But what about people who don’t like music? 

Music is a human universal, but it’s true – not everyone enjoys music. In fact, as a 2014 paper published in Current Biology revealed, some perfectly healthy people can perceive music just like anybody else, but their reward-related neural circuits don’t respond to it. (These circuits do still respond to food or money, for example, so it’s not that they’re generally defective). In fact, an estimated 3-5 per cent of people experience ‘musical anhedonia’, and get no pleasure from music. (To find out where you sit on the music reward spectrum, you could fill in the team’s questionnaire, available here.) Last year, a team that included some of the same researchers published a follow-up study in the Journal of Neuroscience. They found a neurobiological basis for their earlier observations: differences in the white matter ‘wiring’ that connects the auditory cortex and the ventral striatum, a key part of the reward system. What causes these differences is not yet clear. 

For the rest of us, what is it about a piece of music that gives us pleasure? 

Last year, a team led by Vincent Cheung at the Max-Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany published an analysis of responses  to 745 US Billboard pop songs. They found that expectancy is key. When listeners were pretty certain about which chord to expect next (based on what had come before), they found it pleasurable to be surprised. When they weren’t sure what to expect, though, more predictable subsequent chords were pleasing. Popular songs strike a good balance between both subverting expectation and reassuring listeners, the team concluded. “It is fascinating that humans can derive pleasure from a piece of music just by how sounds are ordered over time,” Cheung commented. It is also important for understanding how music influences our emotional state…

Why do we like listening to sad music? 

The first point to stress is that we don’t all necessarily like it. In 2016, a team led by Tuomas Eerola at the University of Durham reported on the emotional experiences connected with sad music of 2,436 people in the UK and Finland. The majority said they enjoyed sad music, and that this pleasure boosted their mood. “However, there are people who absolutely hate sad-sounding music and avoid listening to it,” notes Eerola. The study revealed that for these people, sad music was associated with painful personal experiences, such as loss. Still, the reports of mood-boosting effects from the majority is important. In 2015, a paper titled ‘Sad as a Matter of Choice?’ reported that people with depression were more likely to listen to sad songs – which the team controversially took to imply that they were maintaining or even worsening their own low mood. Last year, however, a study published in Emotion found that depressed people prefer sad music because it is calming and even uplifting. As some participants in another recent study commented, when you’re feeling low, sad music can seem like a supportive friend.  

Extreme emotions

Some pieces of music have dramatic effects on us. ‘Peak emotional states’ involve powerful physical responses, such as tears, or feeling ‘the chills’, and often extreme sadness or joy. They can be triggered by something inherently deeply meaningful – such as childbirth – but also by a beautiful view, or piece of music. A 2017 study published in Scientific Reports explored these reactions, and found that song-induced tears were associated with subsequent calming – they seem, then, to have a cathartic, relieving function.  

Some people, though, are more prone than others to feeling goosebumps or a shiver down the spine in response to a piece of music. And as a paper recently published in Social Cognitive and Effective Neuroscience has revealed, such people have stronger connectivity between auditory processing and social and emotional processing areas of the brain. These same connectivity differences have also been linked to greater empathy. As the researchers write in their paper: “Perhaps one of the reasons why music is a cross-culturally indispensable artifact is that it appeals directly through an auditory channel to emotional and social processing centers of the human brain.” Only, it does this more for some of us than others. 

Connecting brains  

One proposed adaptive function for music is that it unites individuals. With music, we can march together, dance together, and express emotions as one. And there’s now growing evidence that this unity can occur right down at the neural level. 

Back in 2009, Ulman Lindenberger at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin and colleagues reported that when two guitarists play the same piece of music together, their brainwaves synchronise. Big deal, you might think: they’re processing and playing identical notes, so why shouldn’t there be similarities in their brain activity? However, in 2012, the team reported a follow-up involving duets with different guitar parts. When these pairs had to actively coordinate their playing, there was a synchronisation in activity in some regions between the two. This, the team concluded, was evidence of ‘inter-brain networks’. “When people coordinate actions with one another, small networks within the brain and, remarkably, between the brains are formed,” noted Johanna Sänger, lead author of this study. 

Since then, more evidence of inter-brain synchronisation during musical experiences has emerged. It’s known that when audience members are enjoying a piece of live music, their brainwaves tend to synchronise. And, earlier this year, a team led by Yingying Hou at East China Normal University revealed that when a musician is playing a piece, and the audience is enjoying it, a synchronisation in brain activity develops. The team were even able to use the strength of this ‘inter-brain coherence’ to predict how much the audience reported enjoying a piece.  

Use the beat 

Humans are unique as a species in being able to perceive beat. And there’s all kinds of evidence that the tempo of a piece of music affects our behaviour. A classic study, published back in 1986, found that diners in a Dallas restaurant ate significantly faster when faster tempo (more beats per minute) music was played, compared with slow tempo music. These findings went on to influence the choice of soundtracks in restaurants the world over. But there’s also recent evidence that listening to high-tempo music while exercising can increase heart rate more than slow-tempo music and also make the exercise feel less difficult. “This means that the exercise seemed like less effort but it was more beneficial in terms of enhancing physical fitness,” commented researcher Luca P. Ardigò of the University of Verona in Italy. 

Background effects

If you’re the kind of person who likes to have background music playing while you work, there are a couple of studies worth bearing in mind.  

Listening even to music that you enjoy can interfere with working memory, which could impair mental arithmetic, a study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology has found. And though it has been suggested that music can encourage creativity, in fact it “significantly impairs” it, according to a 2019 paper published in the same journal. The researchers, from the UK and Sweden, gave participants verbal insight problems, which are meant to tap creativity. (For example, they were given the words ‘dress’, ‘dial’ and ‘flower’ and asked to identify a single word that could be combined with each – ‘sun’). Background music with foreign lyrics, instrumental music without lyrics and music with familiar lyrics all made the participants worse at this. Again, the researchers think that this is because music disrupts working memory; in this case, verbal working memory. "To conclude, the findings here challenge the popular view that music enhances creativity, and instead demonstrate that music, regardless of the presence of semantic content, consistently disrupts creative performance in insight problem solving,” they write. 

It’s worth noting that the negative impact of familiar music was observed even when a participant said it boosted their mood, reported liking the song, or said that they typically studied with background music playing. So if you do typically work with music, and think it helps, surely it’s worth at least trying to go without. 

- Emma Young writes for our Research Digest.

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