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REPORT | Why We Like Certain Music: The Brain And Musical Preference

By Anya Wassenberg on May 31, 2019

Most classical music lovers can rattle off at least a few different reasons why they love the genre that spans many centuries of Western music. They might list objective reasons like its musical sophistication as compared with the usual pop radio fare, or the studies that talk about relaxation and/or mental stimulation associated with listening to classical music. They may talk more subjectively about the emotions it evokes.

Science, however, tells us that the roots of musical preferences lie much deeper in the very brain itself. Before there can be any emotional interpretation of the music, the sound is processed by the auditory system. It’s an area where the research is in its infancy, and ongoing. Emily Hurwitz, an undergraduate researcher in the Music Cognition Lab at Cornell University, describes it in a recent interview with the Cornell Sun.

“There are a lot of similarities between how we process music and speech, and there are a lot of different opinions about whether we are using the same or different pathways and mechanisms for each.”

That processing goes something like this:

  • Soundwaves are filtered by the ear, and processing begins based on the frequency;
  • The cochlea then encodes the pitch;
  • The auditory pathways send the encoded information to the auditory cortex in the brain.

The first sound that results in the primary auditory cortex is a standard pitch. Other regions of the auditory cortex add more complex elements like timbre and specific sound quality. To add to the complexity, prior research has revealed that multiple areas of the brain become activated by listening to music — many of them not specific to music processing, such as emotional processing. Rhythmic processing on its own involves multiple overlapping structures of the brain.

“The limbic system, which includes areas such as the amygdala and hippocampus, is involved in the processing of emotion in music,” Hurwitz told the Sun reporter.

How does this result in our very individual musical preferences? It turns out that is a fairly complicated question as well, and one that is undergoing study all over the world. A large study of over 4,000 participants in the UK led by Cambridge University psychologist and researcher David Greenberg found a distinct correlation between brain types or thinking styles and musical preferences. The study divided the subjects into three categories.

  • Empathizers or Type E, who focus on people’s thoughts and emotions;
  • Systemizers or Type S, who focus on rules and systems;
  • Balanced or Type B, who focus equally on both areas.

After reviewing the results of thousands of interviews, Greenberg and his team found the Type E thinkers tended to like low energy songs with emotional depth, including sad songs, and genres like soft rock and singer-songwriters. Type B personalities tended to display a broader range of preferences than either of the other types, not surprisingly. Type S thinkers, conversely, tended to prefer more intense and structured music like heavy metal — or classical music in the avant-garde vein. They showed a preference for pieces like Scriabin’s Etude opus 65 no 3, for example.

“They are focusing more on the instrumental elements, seeing how the music is mixing together. It’s almost like a musical puzzle that they’re putting together,” Greenberg explained to CNN reporters. “We are seeking music that reflects who we are, so that includes personality, that includes the way we think, and it may even be the way our brain is wired.”

An interesting 2015 study by researchers from Yale and the Hebrew University found that current moods affect the choice of music we listen to. In particular, the study found that depressed people tend to seek out and listen to sad music, which seems counter-intuitive on the surface. After all, it seems more logical to listen to upbeat music to dispel a bad mood. Subjects of the controlled study, who had all been diagnosed with depression, were asked about their choices, and the majority said the sad music made them feel calmer and more relaxed. They also preferred what the researchers termed “low energy” music, which they also reported as having a calming effect. It goes against the study’s opening thesis, which postulated that says depressed individuals look to hold on to their negative feelings.

Back in 2011, an Ohio State professor hypothesized that, for some subjects, listening to sad music produced the hormone prolactin, which is usually released by the pituitary gland. Prolactin is known to induce feelings of calmness and relaxation. It’s the hormone that is released when we experience empathy, so the theory has some weight. Other research also points to the involvement of the hormone oxytocin, which some studies have linked to listening to slow, mellow music.

The results vary from person to person. The question is, why do some people release those hormones when listening to music, while other people do not? On the level of neurobiology, some evidence seems to suggest that Type E people have a larger than average hypothalamic region in the brain, which is the area governing the pituitary gland and prolactin secretion.

In Type S personalities, the evidence suggests that the areas of the brain that regulate analytic thought, (the cingulate and dorsal medial prefrontal areas,) are larger. Do musical preferences reside in our very brain structures? It’s a tantalizing direction that is under active study.

Other research has found a link between general personality types and genre preferences. Under the Five Factor Model of analyzing personality types, (which also includes conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism,) those who are open to new experiences tend to prefer classical music, along with blues, jazz, and folk music. People in this category display imagination and are sensitive to aesthetics, along with inner feelings. They are intellectually curious.

Once we’ve made a choice about the genre we prefer, it adds another layer to the psychological and physical experience of listening. Regardless of which type of music we prefer, listening to it evokes thoughts and memories that are personal and individual. Some research has linked this phenomenon with activity in specific brain circuits linked to reflective thought and memory. When listening to a favourite piece of piece, the type of connectivity between the auditory regions of the brain and the hippocampus is changed. The hippocampus is known to be involved in memory and emotional processing.

In other words, it’s the familiarity of the music itself that produces a response, regardless of the genre.

A better understanding of the pathways of music and its processing in the brain offers new ways of approaching music therapy, for example, but the implications range far beyond to what Greenberg and his researchers call, “questions surrounding consciousness and “Theory of Mind” (the ability to understand the intentions and emotional state of others).”

The emerging links between music and the brain underscore the concept that music is fundamental to the human experience.


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