Dr. Monday: Why do we enjoy the songs so much?
Music generates pleasure for us by combining the expectations we have of a piece and the surprise we feel when listening to a song. This is the conclusion of a team of scientists that has studied 80,000 chords in 745 Pop songs.
Why do people enjoy songs like Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, from The Beatles for example? A study led by the University of Bergen (Norway) indicates that the pleasure generated by music derives from the correct combination of uncertainty and surprise felt at the succession of chords in the songs.
Humans can enjoy a piece of music simply by how sounds are arranged over time
"It is fascinating that humans can enjoy a piece of music simply because of how sounds are arranged in time," says Vincent Cheung of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Germany and first author of the paper published in the journal Current Biology. .
Until now, it was not known why our expectations about a song can cause pleasure since, according to the authors, most of the studies focused only on the influence of the surprise factor.
“The songs we find enjoyable are probably those that strike a good balance between knowing what will happen next and being surprised by something we didn't expect. Understanding how music activates our pleasure system in the brain could explain why listening to music helps us feel good, ”adds Cheung.
What brings us pleasure is the correct combination of uncertainty and surprise that a song generates
To jointly assess the expectation and surprise indicators, the researchers studied 80,000 chords in 745 classic pop songs collected on Billboard, the American weekly magazine specializing in music information.
They used a machine learning model (a computer branch of artificial intelligence) to mathematically quantify the uncertainty and surprise that the progression of these chords caused in listeners. Additionally, they removed the lyrics and melody from the songs to prevent listeners from recognizing them. "In fact, no participant succeeded," acknowledges Sinc Stefan Koelsch, a professor at the Norwegian university and lead author of the study.
Vincent Cheung, co-author of the studio, listening to music. / MPI CBS
The results, published in the journal Current Biology, show that individuals enjoyed a song very much when they believed they knew what was coming next and ultimately did not live up to their predictions - that is, when they were shocked.
On the other hand, when individuals did not know what was to come next, they appreciated more that the subsequent chords were not surprising. Therefore, the important thing is that there is balance in the combination. "We have shown that pleasure depends on the interaction between the states of retrospective and prospective expectation," insists the researcher.
“Probably, many composers like Bach or Mozart already knew the exact connection and that is why they were so successful. But it is possible that in the future we will see more music produced using artificial intelligence and that the algorithms are largely based on our current findings, "says Koelsch.
The pleasure we feel with music is reflected in three brain regions: the amygdala, the hippocampus and the auditory cortex
The brain's responses to music
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging - which allows images of the active brain regions to be shown - and found that musical pleasure was reflected in three brain regions: the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the auditory cortex. These regions have an important role in the processing of emotions, learning and memory, and that of sound, respectively.
On the other hand, the nucleus accumbens - a brain area or 'pleasure center' that processes reward expectations - was studied for a long time, and it was believed that it reacted to the surprise individuals felt when listening to a chord they did not expect. "However, this area did not really react because of the surprise factor, but because of the uncertainty that was in the listeners' minds, which caused them to want to hear the next chord," explains the author.
This finding could make the combination of these two factors –expectation and surprise– be valued in the future by the effects that other art forms such as dance or cinema have on people. In addition, the results could lead to the creation of algorithms that generate music in an artificial way or help composers to write music.
The researchers' next step is to watch how information flows through different parts of the brain over time and to find out why people get goosebumps with music.
"We believe there is great potential in combining computational modeling and brain imaging to better understand not only why we enjoy music, but also what it means to be human," Cheung concludes.
Cheung et al. "Uncertainty and Surprise Jointly Predict Musical Pleasure and Amygdala, Hippocampus, and Auditory Cortex Activity". Current Biology. November 7, 2019. DOI: www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(19)31258-8
Eduardo Daniel Posternak