The Art & Science of Sound

Why You Think Today's Music Sucks

by Jack Sharkey for KEF

If you're reading this, chances are you're a music fan. You may have very particular or very broad tastes. You may love the way it makes you feel, you may be into it just for the sound, or you may not even really care why you love music. But there's no getting around the fact that to varying degrees, you and every person you have ever met has a deep, personal relationship with music. There's a scientific reason for this.

One of the more profound books on the subject is Dr. Daniel Levitin's The World In Six Songs. Dr. Levitin is a musician and a neuroscientist, and in this book he posits the theory that our musical brains actually guided our human societal development. In short, where we came from and where we are now, culturally speaking, is a direct result of the strong interconnection between our musical brains and our intellects.

This is all because our human brains are hardwired to be musical.

Now Let's Talk About Why You Think Today's Music Sucks

Dr. Levitin and his research assistant Mona Lisa Chanda put it this way in a paper they published in 2013 (Trends In Cognitive Sciences (April 2013, Vol 17, No 4): Music can evoke a wide variety of strong emotions, including joy, sadness, fear, and peacefulness or tranquility, and people cite emotional impact and regulation as two of the main reasons why they listen to music. Music can produce feelings of intense pleasure or euphoria in the listener, sometimes experienced as ‘thrills’ or ‘chillsdown-the spine.’ 

Music acts on our brains the same way opiates and other drugs do. Music also excites the pre-frontal cortex associated with memory. So, when you're a teenager, running around the neighborhood doing teenager stuff, all kinds of hormones like oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin are coursing through the brain centers that respond to rewards like joy and happiness (and sadness and rejection like when that girl three blocks over made you wait outside for an hour on a rainy November night before coming out and telling you she's going out with some 6'2" football player, but have a nice night and thanks for stopping by).

The music you were listening to while your brain was developing became hard-wired in your memory system, and hearing those songs brings back memories that are more intense than those memories built by hearing an equally good song in your thirties or forties.

You think music sucks today because your brain already has intense musical memories that are personal to you and your unique journey. This is the unintentional reason why the largest consumers of music are people in their late teens and early twenties. So, lighten up on the kids a bit and let them fill their brains with their own memories and emotions.

Have you ever noticed that a particularly sad song from a sad time in your youth brings you such peace and happiness when you hear it now?

From Levitin and Chanda's report: Musical pleasure is closely related to the intensity of emotional arousal. Even opposite emotional valences (e.g., ‘happy’ or ‘sad’) can be experienced as pleasurable and listeners often report that the most moving music evokes two or more emotions at once. Music does not have the clear survival benefit associated with food or sex, nor does it display the addictive properties associated with drugs of abuse. Nonetheless, the average person spends a considerable amount of time listening to music, regarding it as one of life’s most enjoyable activities.

At its very core, music is emotion and very personal. In the past decade or so we have seen an explosion of music in our environments that has depersonalized music to a degree. If something is powerful enough to actually change the chemistry in our brains, shouldn't it deserve a higher place in our lives than background noise? Or worse yet, a tool to drown out background noise?

As Chanda and Dr. Levitin put it:
Many believe that music has special, mystical properties and that its effects are not readily reducible to a neuronal or neurochemical state. Advances in cognitive neuroscience have challenged this view, with evidence that music affects the same neurochemical systems of reward as other reinforcing stimuli.

That being said, even though the science behind the report is beyond cool, I still think music is special and mystical and I'm happy to just keep it that way.

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