Have you ever listened to a song that sent shivers down your spine? That, quite literally, struck a chord within you and hit that sonic sweet spot? We’ve all experienced it at some point in our lives — the odd instinct to cry as the singers join in ethereal harmony, the flutter of your heart when the next chord is unexpected, but satisfyingly so. For me, it’s happened with a great many songs, ranging from Steely Dan’s “Bad Sneakers” to Foster the People’s “Nevermind.” But what gives a three-minute audio clip the ability to manipulate our minds, and even our physical responses, so easily?
A dance of anticipation and reward 💃
It turns out that music’s ability to evoke strong emotions stems from sonic patterns and regularities that tempt us to make unconscious predictions. When we correctly identify the next harmony or beat or other musical element, the brain rewards itself with a surge of dopamine. The constant dance between expectation and outcome enlivens your mind with a pleasurable play of emotions.
It’s kind of like a rollercoaster where the anticipation of the next rise, fall, or otherwise heart-rate-increasing experience is what drives the entire experience. It’s the adrenaline pumping through your veins as your car inches slowly towards the apex, not only the drop of your stomach as you abruptly descend, that keeps you coming back for more.
Karl Friston, a neuroscientist and the father of the free-energy principle, has written about how free energy applies to our perception of music. Friston’s hypothesis is that biological systems must minimize the surprise associated with sensory states, such as those entered while listening to music, at each point in time. In effect, this means that different chord progressions and changes in rhythm tease our brains, exacting pleasure when the sound aligns with our expectations.
If you’ve ever taken a music theory class, this might sound familiar. Harmony is one of the most fundamental elements of music. Consonant harmony (high harmonic agreement) is perceived as pleasant, whereas dissonant harmony (poor harmonic agreement) is perceived as unpleasant. Resolution occurs when dissonance moves to consonance, and, as the name suggests, resolves the instability created by the clashing tones.
All of these elements — dissonance, consonance, suspense, and resolution — can be used to create musical interest. But these are not just abstract concepts; interest and pleasantness are clearly reflected in neural responses. Areas of the brain involved in language and semantic memory processing, multimodal sensory integration, and even the detection of threatening stimuli have been shown to respond differently to consonance and dissonance, suspense and resolution.
This is cool, but are there implications for day-to-day life?
1. Committed and disciplined musical training can increase your overall executive functioning and interdisciplinary intelligence 🎹⬆=🧠⬆
The fact that our brains use prediction to determine whether or not we like a song shows that the very process of understanding music is analytical. When we listen, we apply the rules and statistical patterns we’ve compiled over years of consuming auditory information — just as we do when processing spoken language. It’s almost an exercise in machine-learning: Your brain judges the new song that popped up on your Spotify playlist by comparing it against a training set as large as the last several thousand songs you heard.
Musicians, who have conditioned themselves to instantaneously recognize and identify the patterns of suspense and resolution that make us “ooh” and “aah,” are lean, mean, auditory-processing machines 🤖💪. They are able to both isolate and integrate the many informational dimensions of a musical piece, and are often quite good at applying these skills to non-musical contexts. When solving problems of any kind, they are able to simultaneously track a multitude of information and ideas and the ways in which they interact, thus accessing deep, multidimensional intelligences. To put it simply, musicians’ brains are more adept at encoding and retrieving a diversity of knowledge and skills.
2. Balance logic with intuition when making decisions 🤔⚖️💙
Along the lines of interdisciplinary intelligence, remember that innovation and leadership require aspects of analysis and emotion, rationality and intuitiveness. Often, these seemingly-opposite values complement and even enhance one another. A musician’s strong foundation in theory and knowledge improves her instincts and allows her to react quickly and accurately to new conditions. She is able to resolve conflicts (whether literal or musical) with ease and create a pleasant experience for her audience. But taking into consideration the sentimental impact of a piece is just as important. So much of an initial impact, whether delivering a business pitch or playing a song, is emotional in nature, and someone who is in tune with her emotions can alter a piece to create an interesting experience for her audience.
3. Listen to music to de-stress and get into your flow state 🎵=📈
Much of the benefit of music is the pleasure we get from listening to it. Jamming out to some tunes in between tasks, or playing it during repetitive tasks that require little cognitive load, can improve mood and productivity. There are mixed accounts of whether familiar or unfamiliar music is best for working, but the consensus is that you should listen to music should enjoy, as you’ll be more likely to reap the neurochemical benefits.
Additionally, music stimulates areas of your brain not normally recruited during mundane tasks. This means your brain is more engaged, and thus more motivated and alert. But, according to activation theory, you do your best work at moderate levels of neural activation; too little or too much stimulation leads to a decline in performance. In order to harness the productivity-boosting powers of music while working, and avoid over-stimulating your brain, play songs that are not lyric-intensive. You will be less likely to lose focus and send your brain into multi-tasking mode.
In general, the following rules apply:
- If performing a high cognitive demand task, such as writing an essay, stick to music with little to no lyrics.
- Listen to music you enjoy!
Sources and further reading
Musical reward prediction errors engage the nucleus accumbens and motivate learning
Prediction errors are crucial for perception, learning, and adaptability. Can they also explain the abstract pleasures…
[PDF] A Free Energy Formulation of Music Generation and Perception: Helmholtz Revisited | Semantic…
This chapter pursues the notion that, quintessentially, music enables the prediction of the unpredictable. Our focus is…
Brain processing of consonance/dissonance in musicians and controls: a hemispheric asymmetry…
Abstract It was investigated to what extent musical expertise influences the auditory processing of harmonicity by…
Anterior cingulate and medial prefrontal cortex response to systematically controlled tonal…
Fernando Bravo Corresponding Author E-mail address: email@example.com https://orcid.org/0000-0002-3601-5955…
Executive Function, Visual Attention and the Cocktail Party Problem in Musicians and Non-Musicians
The goal of this study was to investigate how cognitive factors influence performance in a multi-talker…
The neurochemistry of music
Music is used to regulate mood and arousal in everyday life and to promote physical and psychological health and…
The Mind at Work: Daniel Levitin on the secret life of the musical brain
Neuroscientist Karl Friston has a theory that brain learns about the world by constantly testing ways to minimize…
Whistle while you work? A review of the effects of music in the workplace
Study of music's effects in the workplace by management scholars has been limited. * Interdisciplinary research has…