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January 1, 2007
Why Do We Remember Pop Songs? - Neuroesthetics Wants to Know
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.
In 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.”
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