About this author
Zack Lynch is author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin's Press, July 2009).
He is the founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) and co-founder of NeuroInsights. He serves on the advisory boards of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, Science Progress, and SocialText, a social software company. Please send newsworthy items or feedback - to Zack Lynch.
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Brain Waves

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January 1, 2007

Why Do We Remember Pop Songs? - Neuroesthetics Wants to Know

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Every January I like to circle back around to one of the most fun and fascinating areas of brain research, the emerging field of neuroesthetics, the study of the neurobiology of artistic creativity and achievement. In years past I have written posts on the "Flavors of Experience", "Empathy and Art in the Brain", Celebrating Obsessive Art and "Emotions in Art and the Brain". While the substance of these previous posts were scientific conferences, this year the NYTimes finally caught up on the subject with a excellent article on the front page of the Arts and Leisure section on December 31. Written by Clive Thompson, "Music of the Hemispheres" follows the musical life and research of Dr. Daniel Levitin who has been studying musical abilities in individuals with Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that leaves people with low intelligence but high levels of music ability.

Bennie.JPG.jpgIn his research he has also been scanning the brains of listeners trying to answer questions like "Are our brains wired for sound?", "Does the brain experience a live performance different from a recorded one?" and "Why are pop music memories be so sharply encoded (in our brain)?" In trying to answer the last question he hypothesized that perhaps music triggers the reward centers in our brains. From the Times article:

In a study published last year Dr. Levitin and group of neuroscientists mapped out precisely how. Observing 13 subjects who listened to classical music while in an M.R.I. machine, the scientists found a cascade of brain-chemical activity. First the music triggered the forebrain, as it analyzed the structure and meaning of the tune. Then the nucleus accumbus (actually the area is called the nucleus accumbens)and ventral tegmental area activated to release dopamine, a chemical that triggers the brain’s sense of reward.

The cerebellum, an area normally associated with physical movement, reacted too, responding to what Dr. Levitin suspected was the brain’s predictions of where the song was going to go. As the brain internalizes the tempo, rhythm and emotional peaks of a song, the cerebellum begins reacting every time the song produces tension (that is, subtle deviations from its normal melody or tempo).

“When we saw all this activity going on precisely in sync, in this order, we knew we had the smoking gun,” he said. “We’ve always known that music is good for improving your mood. But this showed precisely how it happens.”

The subtlest reason that pop music is so flavorful to our brains is that it relies so strongly on timbre. Timbre is a peculiar blend of tones in any sound; it is why a tuba sounds so different from a flute even when they are playing the same melody in the same key. Popular performers or groups, Dr. Levitin argued, are pleasing not because of any particular virtuosity, but because they create an overall timbre that remains consistent from song to song. That quality explains why, for example, I could identify even a single note of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets.”

Comments (6) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Neuroesthetics


1. Nancy on January 2, 2007 1:05 AM writes...

My son has Williams syndrome (WS), and as he grows, it is quite apparent music is of huge importance to him -- more so than his typical 2-year-old friends. We expose him to a variety of music, from country piano to opera, on a daily basis, knowing music has the potential to allow him to seriously compete with his peers in the real world and soothe the anxiety that is a part of WS. Another part of his syndrome is severe hyperacusis. While some music and sounds are pleasant to him, others will cause him to shake violently and cry uncontrollably.

There are many articles on line documenting severe mental retardation and musical ability in WS. Yes, there is commonly a degree of mental retardation that goes with this syndrome, but the severity of it varies greatly. It is important to note that musical talent does not always manifest itself in individuals with WS, although most have a great love for music itself and some extraordinary talent as well. There are also other great strengths that accompany WS, such as verbal acuity, relatively good reading/phonics skills, and extremely good social skills. My son has yet to master verbalizing his desires, yet he remembers names and faces much better than I do, has a wonderful sense of humor, and has an impressive, above average vocabulary of multisyllabic words. His abilities will likely remain extremely asymmetric -- weak in one area and extremely strong in another. With a deletion of 20+ genes from his genetic makeup, it is amazing to me that he survived at all and is showing great strengths and abilities; but many individuals with WS are doing just that and living semi-independently when it was formerly thought impossible.

Thank you for writing about WS.

More Info:

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2. Flávio Santos on January 2, 2007 9:42 PM writes...

Fascinating. Our brains are fascinating biological devices, that let us experience physical things seamlessly, providing them with a strong 'spiritual' charge. Fascinating, indeed.

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3. Kensai on January 8, 2007 2:18 PM writes...

But why timbre? Pop songs replayed with different "timbres" (other instruments) are popular and catchy the same.


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4. jakob46 on January 9, 2007 6:56 PM writes...

Good point, why timbre? Someone could mangle out "Benny and the Jets" on a Moog, for example....and it would still be "Benny and the Jets" :)

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5. lmb on January 20, 2007 7:34 PM writes...

Fascinating topic. What amazes me is the ability of the brain to pick a song to hum without the hummer being cognizant of what they're humming, only to realize that they are humming something totally appropriate to a life situation they find themselves in. And it's often a song that hasn't been heard in ages!

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6. Dirk on October 23, 2007 5:05 AM writes...

Re: "But why timbre? Pop songs replayed with different "timbres" (other instruments) are popular and catchy the same."

No, I believe the alternate versions without the classic timbre are usually derided.

Re: "Good point, why timbre? Someone could mangle out "Benny and the Jets" on a Moog, for example....and it would still be "Benny and the Jets" :)"

It would be Benny and the Jets, but people probably wouldn't like it or remember it. Timbre is the "flavor of the sound" and pop music relies on 'flavor' over structure heavily. Similar to the way you can taste one teaspoon from a large pot and know that it's spaghetti sauce.

Pop maestros as Phil Spector or Brian Wilson are quoted as trying to 'capture that sound', not "write that composition".

If you can remember the Beatles first breakthrough hits - they were heavily dominated by a peculiar 'aaaa' sound; yeah yeah yeah, or even the word "tell": John and Paul would sing the word "tell", but George's accent would make his sound like 'tal'. The blend making for a memorable timbre.

An interesting thing is the rise to prominence of two simple 'pentatonic scales' in the last fifty years - major pentatonic (country), and minor pentatonic (blues). Originally deriving from roots music, the two scales have come to dominate 90% of pop music since the mid fifties. These two scales are not at all conducive to generating melodies, but they are almost fool proof for generating simple, strong harmonies that lie well with particular instrumental timbres. (many fifths & fourths in addition to thirds, as opposed to primarily thirds in more traditional music.)

These two pentatonic scales, which tend to favor timbre over melody, are also easy to learn, which enables charismatic personalities to more readily translate their experiences and aesthetics into emotional music-analogues -'flavors' which people more readily consume.

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