“So, what kind of music do you listen to?”
It’s a question we’ve all faced at one point or another. It balances precariously on the line between casual small talk and personal conversation, a light-hearted question whose answer can potentially reveal much information about a person’s character. It’s a question that many can answer instantly and with conviction, but which leaves me baffled.
I struggle to answer this question not because I don’t listen to music much – quite the opposite. Music is the background of my life. I listen while I’m doing homework, riding the subway, exercising, showering, doing laundry…there’s a soundtrack to everything I do. And if I’m not listening to music through earphones or a speaker, there’s always a song playing in my head – guiding the tapping of my fingers, the bounce in my step, and my absent-minded whistling.
No, that question is not difficult to answer because I don’t have enough music to choose from; rather, I have too much. My Spotify account consists primarily of one massive playlist – simply called “Good Music” – to which I add any and all songs that catch my ear. “Good Music” is currently 1,062 songs long, combining for a total of 72 hours and 22 minutes and representing hundreds of artists. How do I describe this to someone who wants to know whether I like classic rock or hip-hop or jazz? How do I reconcile Bob Marley’s reggae with Sound Remedy’s EDM, or Jon Bellion’s alternative hip-hop with Pink Floyd’s classic rock? I listen to everything from rap to classical music – I only actively avoid country and death metal. So, when someone asks me what music I like to listen to, I tell them the truth: I listen to anything that sounds good to me.
An obvious answer perhaps, but intriguing nonetheless. There’s something that my brain finds (or found at some point) appealing in every one of those 1,062 songs, something that makes me think, “that’s a good song” – but what is it? What is it about one arbitrary sequence of sounds that makes it more appealing than another? Believe it or not, the most valuable source I could find on this topic wasn’t a recent scientific study, but a book written in 1956 by Leonard Meyer. When you consider that Meyer was both a conductor and a psychologist, however, it comes as no surprise that his perspective can provide some very useful insight into this issue. In his book Emotion and Meaning in Music, which has been the springboard for many scientific and musical studies, Meyer hypothesizes that our response to music has to do with expectation and reward. According to Meyer, as we listen to a piece of music, our brains are constantly working to predict what’s coming next based on what we’ve already heard. Kind of like a meteorologist’s weather model, our brains call on our personal database of musical memory and patterns to forecast subsequent rhythms and melodies. These predictions can be as specific as expecting specific notes at very particular times, or as broad as anticipating the termination of a small musical fragment that has been repeated several times. As we continue listening, our brains continue to cycle through states of expectation, suspense, and – hopefully – resolution (Meyer 26). The resolution is where we receive our brains’ reward – a little rush of dopamine, the brain’s pleasure chemical, associated with intensely pleasurable experiences (Blood and Zatorre 11818). We reward ourselves this way because early humans who could correctly predict the immediate future had a significantly higher chance of avoiding danger than those who couldn’t (Huron 3), and so humans evolved a positive response to being able to correctly predict situational outcomes based on contextual clues. Thus, our brain rewards us for making correct predictions, even when it comes to music.
But music that is too predictable is boring. Every time my sister would play Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” in the car I would groan – besides having an adolescent male’s obligatory aversion to Taylor Swift, I truly did find the music boring. In fact, I find that most country and pop songs, especially the ones played on the radio, sound generic, uninteresting, and repetitive. It appears my brain is almost too prepared to predict these songs, with their common 4/4 time signature and their I-V-vi-IV chord progression. (If you need a demonstration of the commonness of this chord progression, look up the video “4 Chords” by Axis of Awesome.) So, when faced with a song by Katy Perry or Ariana Grande or Jason Derulo, my brain has no trouble making its predictions, and gives me no reward when those predictions are fulfilled. It’s kind of like a bodybuilder bench-pressing twenty pounds – no pain, no gain. Without passing a certain threshold state of suspense or doubt, the music can reach no identifiable resolution. That’s why these generic pop songs are go-to material for most radio stations: they’re a safe option, the lowest common denominator. They will never actively repel any listener, musically speaking – at worst, they will be repetitive and boring. Even I will admit, pop songs can be catchy at times, though overall they hold no real interest for me, certainly not for more than a couple of days.
At the other end of the spectrum from the repetitive and boring is atonal, dissonant, or experimental music. These styles of music reject conventional music theory to the extent that it is nearly impossible for our brains to make accurate predictions, and our expectations are almost always incorrect. And as Meyer tells us, “if our expectations are continually mistaken or inhibited, then doubt and uncertainty as to the general significance, function, and outcome of the passage will result” (Meyer 26), meaning that we will not enjoy the music. In fact, it will probably make us more uncomfortable than anything else.
Given the significance of doubt and resolution concerning our predictions, it follows that for music to sound good, it must fall into some range between predictable and chaotic – it must find the sweet spot. If music is a real-time guessing game for our brains, the game is only fun when the song is not too easy and not too hard to predict. In their 1971 article entitled “Musical Preference and Taste in Childhood and Adolescence,” Hargreaves et al. cited psychologist Daniel Berlyne, who characterized the musical sweet spot in his arousal-potential model, claiming that there is an “inverted-U” relationship between complexity/familiarity and appeal: either too familiar or too complex, and the music isn’t likable (Hargreaves, North, and Tarrant 139).
So it seems the 1,062 songs on “Good Music” have found my personal sweet spot, or at least have come close. But my list still represents all types of genres, artists, even time periods, whereas other people might listen only to country or rap or rock. It seems something about my musical expectations must be different in a significant way from others’. In my musings about this, I’ve come to believe those expectations are directly influenced by two main factors: my innate cognitive-pattern-recognition skills, and my mental musical “database.”
History has given us ample anecdotal evidence to suggest there is a connection between musical talent and intelligence. Some of the greatest scientific minds in history had a passion and talent for music: Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison played the piano, Albert Einstein played the violin, and Isaac Newton the flute. More recently, some scientific studies have correlated musical ability with “better verbal and mathematical skills [and] higher scores on tests of working memory, cognitive flexibility, and IQ” (Dewar). To me, this makes sense: being able to play music means being able to multitask not only physically, but mentally. Keeping track of several overlaying patterns of rhythm, melody, and harmony at the same time takes a certain level of cognitive ability that should certainly be applicable to more than just music. Of course, not everyone who is good at math will be good at music – there are certainly mathematical geniuses who are tone-deaf and couldn’t even keep beat with a tambourine. So, while all talented musicians might be pretty smart, not all pretty smart people will be talented musicians.
Ok, fine: there seems to be some sort of correlation between (at least mathematical) intelligence and playing music. But what about a connection between our intelligence and listening to music? Could our innate intelligence or cognitive ability influence the kinds of music we like to listen to? Well…obviously. Just as some people have an innate inclination for science or writing or economics or anything, it’s possible to have an innate inclination for certain types of music, or just music in general. After all, music is just a collection of auditory patterns, and if your genetic code determines that your brain is good at recognizing those patterns, then your musical taste will shift towards the “complex” side of the complex-familiarity spectrum. Indeed, it’s possible that your musical sweet spot has been encoded in your genes.
But if that were the case, then why don’t siblings, or even twins, like the same music? There must be more to the story: the “nurture” aspect of musical preference. When I was four years old, I started taking classical piano lessons, which I continued to do through freshman year of high school. Throughout high school, I took guitar lessons and played both instruments recreationally, escaping from my academic and social stress to jam with my guitar teacher for forty-five minutes each week. Although I may have denied it at a younger age, I must admit now that my parents were right: playing an instrument has helped me by teaching me diligence, focus, meditation, and the joy of creating something beautiful. But it also had an unanticipated side effect: playing music gave me greater appreciation for complexity in the musical components of a song. My instrument-playing background has made me appreciate “clever” combinations more than common sequences – this is probably why I find generic pop songs uninteresting. My musical database has been influenced by my history of playing instruments.
Then, in addition to playing music, I’ve also been listening to it my whole life. In my mind, everyone I know has a song or a musical artist attached to them – my mother is ABBA, my father Mark Knopfler, my girlfriend Jon Bellion, my sisters Twenty Øne Piløts and Avicii, my uncle the Beatles…the list goes on. I still remember the “Baby Einstein” DVD my parents would play for me as a toddler, the Raffi songs my sister loved and listened to all the time, and my first iPod (a red 2nd generation iPod Nano). At first, I listened primarily to artists introduced to me by my family and my best friends. Gradually, I progressed to other artists: Guns N’ Roses, Def Leppard, U2, Coldplay, and Bob Marley were the ones who featured prominently on my iPod playlist. With the advent of the iTunes Store, I soon began to branch even further away from artists introduced to me by my parents, towards individual songs I had found myself. Every couple of weeks I would ask my dad to buy and download the latest pop song I’d gotten hooked on – “Pumped Up Kicks,” “Somebody I Used to Know,” “Midnight City,” “Boom Boom Pow,” “Dynamite,” “Human,” and “Forget You” are just a few that come to mind from the probably hundred or so singles I downloaded over the years.
And then came streaming services. Spotify transformed the way I approached listening to music, allowing me to find not only artists I knew or a few recent songs I’d liked, but hundreds of new songs at a time. I could Shazam songs I liked in restaurants or stores, and add them to my playlist without thinking twice about it; I could browse my Suggested feed and find songs I liked by artists I didn’t know existed. Even my father, who resents the fact that we don’t ever actually own the songs we pay for through Spotify, admits that Spotify is great for finding new music. It does this through rigorous algorithms that parse billions of playlists, trying to match my music taste with others’. This information is used to develop a list of suggested songs and artists that I haven’t heard yet. The result: a Discover Weekly mixtape of new songs, specifically engineered to fit my musical taste.
Using Spotify’s algorithms (and suggestions from friends) over the course of a couple of years, I have amassed a wealth of music that fits my taste – a wealth that is diverse in genre, artists, and time period. Recently, I went back and sifted through that wealth, looking for what might have piqued my interest in each of the 1,062 songs in “Good Music” – what was the common factor that made me like each of them? What emerged as I thought about this question were three distinctive strategies that artists generally rely on in the music that most attracts me: I’ve labeled these strategies “mimicry,” “tonality”, and “abnormality.”
Mimicry is exactly what it sounds like: part of a song sounds deceptively like another familiar one, but is different in some significant way – a bait and switch of sorts. For example, the opening riff in “First” by Cold War Kids starts out deceptively like the intro to “Funeral” by Band of Horses, but deviates almost immediately after the first two measures, and ends up sounding nothing like the soulful ballad it initially echoed. Even just a couple of chords or the sound of a particular instrument can evoke memories of another song. Mimicry is why I love remixes, covers, and remakes so much – they’re familiar, but altered in musically unexpected ways.
Tonality refers to specific tones in songs: something in the song just sounds different in a very interesting way. Usually this is the sound of an instrument: an interesting synth (like Kygo’s distinctive pluck synth), a guitar distortion that is just the perfect amount of grunge (think Arctic Monkeys), or even vocals (Twenty Øne Piløts has a very distinct vocal sound). Tonality can often make up for a “bland” chord progression like the Pop I-V-vi-IV; MGMT’s “Kids,” Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry,” and U2’s “With or Without You” are perfect examples. Tonality can also combine with other strategies to create added variation in songs: for example, Jon Bellion, currently my favorite artist, is a master at creating strange yet catchy sounds with both instruments and his voice, but his chord progressions and rhythms aren’t exactly “normal” – in fact, they’re quite abnormal.
Abnormality is just…everything else. Songs whose chord progressions are not generic at all, whose bass lines are active and unusual, whose rhythms and beat patterns are syncopated or layered, whose key signature can change suddenly mid-track. A lot of alternative or progressive music falls into this category: Jon Bellion, Electric Guest, ODESZA, Pink Floyd, AURORA, Miike Snow…in fact, artists like these make up the bulk of the music I listen to. Abnormal songs are the ones whose “first listens” are true experiences: completely unexpected – yet still satisfying – resolutions, just one pleasant surprise after another.
I’ve come to understand that musical taste, just like physique, is a matter of both nature and nurture. It’s coded in our genes, determined by our neural pathways and cognitive activity. But, as Hargreaves et al. remind us, it is also dynamic and susceptible to change, especially during childhood (Hargreaves, North, and Tarrant 136), and is greatly affected by musical exposure, social pressures, personal experience, and practical availability through technology. So my brain’s musical guessing game is unique in its difficulty, its pickiness, and its variety because of my unique musical intelligence, which is in turn a product of the synapses in my brain and the music in my past. My musical taste is the sum of all my past musical experiences built on the foundation of my neural pathways, much in the way that my whole character is the sum of all my past personal experiences built on the foundation of my personality. My music is an extension of my character – it defines me just as much as I define it.
So now, you tell me: what type of music do I listen to?
Ball, Philip. “Will We Ever… Understand Why Music Makes Us Feel Good?” N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2016.
Blood, Anne J., and Robert J. Zatorre. “Intensely Pleasurable Responses to Music Correlate with Activity in Brain Regions Implicated in Reward and Emotion.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2001: 11818. Print.
Dewar, Gwen. “Music and Intelligence.” Parenting Science. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.
Griffith, Virgil. “Musicthatmakesyoudumb.” Musicthatmakesyoudumb. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.
Hargreaves, David J., Adrian C. North, and Mark Tarrant. “Musical Preference and Taste in Childhood and Adolescence.” The Child as Musician: A handbook of musical development. Oxford University Press, 2006-06-01. Oxford Scholarship Online. 2012-03-22. Date Accessed 27 Oct. 2016.
Huron, David. Sweet Anticipation : Music and the Psychology of Expectation. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, c2006. 2006. Print.
Meyer, Leonard B. Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1961, c1956], 1961. Print.
Pasick, Adam. “The Magic That Makes Spotify’s Discover Weekly Playlists so Damn Good.” Quartz. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.
 A musical resolution occurs when harmony shifts from discord to concord.