Why Your Brain Likes The Music It Does
The latest Paste includes a brief article by a neuroscientist listing the assorted ways our brain is more likely to be pleased by a song.
The writer is Daniel Levitan, author of This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science Of a Human Obsession and, per Paste's bio, "a producer, audio engineer, musician and neuroscientist who has worked with many artists, including Santana, Joe Santriani and Stevie Wonder." They mentioned all that before the book or that he "teaches at McGill University in Montreal, Canada". I'd have put the "neuroscientist" part first. Having dropped Stevie Wonder's name here, a reference to "the genius of Wonder's playing" seems questionable. There are so many musicians; surely it can't be that difficult to avoid examples by those he's worked with?
Nonetheless, the list is intriguing, a good tease, because it's such a fascinating topic and the article is so brief. Also, no sources are cited. While some of it makes intuitive sense, some of it brings Pandora to mind. Pandora can be fun and offers some good music recommendations and some bad ones... It's tricky to bring science to art, particularly when heavily relying on subjective perceptions and arguably-sketchy studies.
It would have been fun if Paste had expanded the article enough to explore the topic more, maybe with a sidebar on studies! Some Paste readers might never learn that Canadian researchers found that while babies prefer harmonies, they hardly react to the most atonal music, with note combinations such as C and F sharp played together. Yet in a Harvard University companion study, researchers reported that indeed, babies enjoyed harmonies. American babies, though, responded to out-of-tune sounds with "not just looks of disgust", they would also "look away, cry, fret and not even look at the speaker". So are American babies whinier? Did the Canadian babies just give up on complaining, figuring these jerks were going to keep playing that damn music and the only thing to do was wait until adolescence to seek revenge for this suffering? What about non-Western babies? Won't somebody please think of the non-Western babies? Shouldn't they have to be subjected to psychological experimentation with uncertain ramifications too?
Yes, if it was up to me the article would have been a lot longer than less-than-two pages.
"Some actions that lead to convergences between music and neuropsychology":
1) Violate expectations: pitch
"We're used to melodies being composed of different notes... McCartney holds a single pitch for the first seven notes of 'You Never Give Me Your Money'"
2) Violate expectations: rhythm
"Musicians work hard to establish a song's groove and, when they stop, it becomes a sort of neuromusical joke, the equivalent of tripping someone as they walk down the street."
I love false endings in songs. I think at least a slightly better comparison is suddenly stopping in front of someone when you're quickly walking somewhere together. There is something wonderful about that moment when the music stops, during a song you've decided is great, and you realize it's not really the end. Hopefully, the artist handles that post-silence bit cleverly. There should be a good reason they came back, as if they thought of something else they really had to add.
Underworld - Kittens (available on Beaucoup Fish)
3) Variations on a theme
"Our brains have evolved to love variety - in food, sex, and music. A classic trick is when musicians restate a musical idea on a different instrument. The guitar solo in 'And I Love Her' by The Beatles - which plays the same melody as the vocal - does just this, as does the solo in Coldplay's 'Don't Panic.'"
Since music is the topic, let's skip to that one. A different musical instrument within the same song is one thing (and within the context of the list), so if our brains have evolved love variety in music, shouldn't most people have eclectic musical tastes? Do they? I don't think people who read alt-music blogs are representative of most people. They're already looking for new sounds, so they're more likely also open to different genres.
4) Paradox and contradiction
"Musicians often surprise us by playing songs we wouldn't expect them to, or in a style we wouldn't expect... Tori Amos recorded a soft-ballad version of Nirvana's abrasive classic 'Smells Like Teen Spirit.' The inherent juxtaposition of styles is musically (and neurally) rewarding."
"Soft-ballad" sounds so Bluntian. "What makes a good cover" is a hefty subject unto itself. I disagree that mere surprise is musically rewarding and I feel safe in speaking for my neurons here and saying that they cosign that (the dated slang is the neurons' choice, not mine).
Ol' Dirty Bastard has surprised me with some of his musical choices yet I do not enjoy them. You might argue that I have to enjoy the artist in the first place, but stop right there! (It's not a trick; I don't do that bumping thing). I sometimes like songs by artists I don't generally like.
There are good musical surprises and bad musical surprises, just as there are good and bad every-other-kind-of-surprise. Fountains Of Wayne's 1999 cover of "...Baby One More Time" was refreshing and fun by virtue of how different it was from the original. Suddenly something so familiar seemed new, and nuances were revealed (or created). It seemed to spawn thousands of similar mock-sincere alt-covers in its wake. There were many similar ones before, but the Fountains Of Wayne cover, and its success, likely inspired many other artists to cover mainstream pop songs, both in concert, and in the studio.
Fountains Of Wayne - ... Baby One More Time (available on Out-of-State Plates)
Covers are fun, but there's such a massive quantity these days, many of which use 'paradox' and 'contradiction' that quality is especially key.
Several years ago, a lounge cover of an alternative song was interesting in and of itself. Now, it would probably have to be of a favorite song or extremely creative or well-done to catch my interest. I thought Paul Anka's album was boring and the concept was untimely. Richard Cheese is a novelty act, never really out of date... never really novel.
Paul Anka - Wonderwall (available on Rock Swings)
Richard Cheese - Buddy Holly (available on Tuxicity)
5) Juxtapose expectationsL rhythm and genre
"The Police made a career out of violating rhythmic expectations. Rock's standard rhythmic convention is to have a guitar or piano play downbeats (ones and threes) while a snare drum plays backbeats on the two and the four. Reggae turns this around, putting guitar on two and four with the backbeat. The Police combined reggae with rock to create a new sound that simultaneously fulfilled some - and violated other - rhythmic expectations... 'Spirits From The Material World' from Ghost In The Machine takes this rhythmic play to such an extreme that it can be hard to tell where the downbeat even is."
The Police - Spirits In The Material World (available on Every Breath You Take: The Classics)
6) Violate structural expectations
"In 'Yesterday,' the main melodic phrase is seven measures long; The Beatles surprise us by violating one of the most basic assumptions of popular music: the four - or eight - measure phrase (nearly all rock/pop songs have musical ideas organized into phrases of those lengths)."
7) Don't do the same thing twice
"Master musicians add subtle shadings of nuance and difference to their parts; each time they play a part, they change it a bit."
Within a song, sure, if it's done well. Many things can be done well or poorly. When a song is performed later, for instance in concerts, tinkering with it does not necessarily improve it. It's easy to understand how creative people might get bored performing the same songs many, many times but sometimes a song that ain't broke... doesn't need fixing.
8) Unfold chords one note at a time
"Instead of playing the guitar chords all at once, composers will often spoon-feed them to us one note at a time. This builds tension and exercises our brains by forcing them to assemble the notes into a coherent harmonic object. We become participants in the music's creation by creating in our heads the chords the guitarist implies."
He gives examples including The Cure's "Kyoto Song". If you don't like it, you just don't want to be a participant in creating music. I don't judge you for that, but my neurons kinda do.
The Cure - Kyoto Song (available on The Head On The Door)
More info, including interactive examples, is available at the author's website. He was recently on NPR, but a search didn't turn up a link to the interview...