Our Music Choices Explained–Sort Of

MusicBrainIn a humongous pan, add generous helpings of: Foo Fighters, Steely Dan, Widespread Panic and Harry Connick, Jr. Stir well, then simmer over low heat. Once the mixture thickens, fold in medium-size portions of Tom Petty, the Allman Brothers, and Ben Folds Five. Cover, place in oven on extra-low.

While the main mixture bakes, prepare a side salad: simply combine equal parts Beastie Boys, Pink Floyd, and any 80s one-hit wonders you have on hand. Toss this in a G. Love & Special Sauce dressing, then top with grated Neil Young. Set aside.

Once the main mixture is thoroughly heated, add a thick layer of Dusty Pas’cal, then a thin feuille of State Radio. Sprinkle a variety of piano jazz tunes over casserole; season all with Classic Rap.

Serve. Listen. Thrill.

The other day, while I was listening to my main Spotify playlist—five hundred-plus songs, over forty hours of music, consisting of all the above ingredients and tons more—the psychologist in me thought: I wonder exactly why different types of music appeal to different people? And why do I listen to the stuff I do?

So I decided to try my damnedest to find out the answers to those questions.

First, the ol’ scientific approach. (And let me say, when I Googled “music and the brain,” “the science of music,” et al., I got tons of results, a few of which were even helpful.) After spending a couple hours slogging through it all, I found some relevant stuff. Stay with me whilst I try to plow through it:

You might already know that at certain moments when a person listens to music he or she likes, the brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine, a hormone that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. In a nutshell, the same thing happens in your brain when you hear a great tune as when you dig into a bowl of Rocky Road, or win $700 on a king-high straight, or—for some folks, anyway—watch your neighbor bust his ass on his icy driveway.

But lemme take it a step further: dopamine (and I love how accurately this hormone is named!) is also released during what scientists call the “anticipation phase,” during which the brain tries to predict what’s coming next. (When you open the Rocky Road carton, for example, or see your neighbor first slip a little.) In music, a simple example would be—and excuse me while I slip into Music Theory Geek mode for a second—the idea of tension/resolution, like progressing from a G7 chord to C Major. The G7 has leading tones, so the natural expectation of the listener is that the next chord will be C.

Obviously, the pleasure someone gets from listening to a great song is tons more complex. As a person ages, his or her brain “trains” itself to more accurately predict a song’s progression—and thus be more rewarded when the song climaxes. (A three-year-old, for instance, might get the same satisfaction from listening to “The Wheels on the Bus” as does a middle-aged guy grooving to a Miles Davis suite.) So the more someone listens to music—and in the case of a musician, the more he or she knows about music—the predictions they make, and in fact expect, are closer to correct. Plus, a songwriter knows, whether or not he or she is aware, just how to build those expectations as the tune progresses.

Here’s something else: say you’re in the car all by yourself, and one of your favorite songs from fifteen years ago comes on the radio. You immediately start dancing in the driver’s seat and turn it up. “Awwww shit! That’s my BEAT!!” you say to no one, and even though the song may be a one-hit wonder, and only you and a handful of other people remember it, you’re still in bliss for about four minutes.

Sound familiar? And I bet that while you were listening, you remembered detailed events, people and places from that time in your life. You probably already know there’s some correlation between music and memory, but have never known exactly why they’re so closely connected.

Well, now you do. It’s because of something called the “reminiscence bump.” (You’re welcome.)

And no, the reminiscence bump isn’t the name of some geeky ‘90s dance tune. Basically, it’s the tendency for adults to have increased recollection for events that occurred during their adolescence and early adulthood. According to Psychology Today, “events from this period (age 10-25) loom large because it’s when people are most preoccupied with forming an identity.” In other words, more meaningful things happen during these years, so our stored memories of the time period are much more detailed.

Whether or not this example illustrates the idea, I’ll tell you: every single time I hear the opening organ riff to Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” I have a vivid memory of standing in the driveway of my boyhood home on a cold morning, wearing a blue coat while waiting for the school bus. (The song was released in late 1977, so I would’ve been 8 or so when it became popular.)

There’s loads more about science and music, but…think I’ll stop there. (Again, you’re welcome.)

Next, here’s what I learned about the relationship between music and social identity. Of course, there are a lot of factors: home environment, social standing, an individual’s personality…you get the idea. And here I ran into sort of a conundrum: does a person choose the music, or does music choose the person?

Far as I can tell, it’s some of both. Someone who grows up in Alabama, of course, is more likely to listen to country music than a homeboy from Compton. And since humans are largely products of their environment, someone within a particular social class tends to choose the same music as their peers (college professors and jazz, suburban teens and emo, etc.)

And as far as the relationship between music and personality, my search didn’t reveal anything earth-shattering. In a nutshell: pop music fans tend to be extroverted, honest and conventional; country fans are typically hardworking, traditional and outgoing; rap lovers, high self-esteem and expansive personalities; and rock/heavy metal, creative but often introverted. (In the words of Forrest Gump, that’s awl I have to say about thay-ut.)

And finally, I wanna figure out my own music choices. I’ll start with some factors that maybe help determine them, the hit you with a list of why some artists/bands are faves.

I grew up in smalltown Mississippi. There was always a piano in the house, and I took lessons for a short time as a kid. (And later, when I started college and became a theatre major, I dated–and was friends with–a lot of people from the music department, so choral music, and anything with piano, have great appeal for me.)

When I transferred to Southern Miss in Hattiesburg in ‘92, there was an incredible music scene happening there. (There’s even a Facebook page dedicated to those years—the late ‘80s and the ‘90s—called Hattiesburg Magical Musical Mecca.) Quite a few friends and acquaintances played in bands around The Burg then, so hard rock/alternative/indie will always be somewhere in the mix.

Also during my time at Southern Miss—maybe even because of it—I was a piano minor. But I was not really a fan of classical music, and I sucked at sight-reading, so I preferred playing rock, R&B and funk stuff (again, a product of my environment, right?)

And those elements helped determine my love for:

Steely Dan — Unique chord progressions, enigmatic lyrics, and an “I-couldn’t-care-less-whether-you-like-us-or-not” attitude. Their songs are mostly based around keyboard riffs, so that makes them a personal shoo-in…and their band name is taken from a slang term for a dildo. How could I not love them?

Foo Fighters – I think my continued love for these guys is an extension of my college years, which happened to be when alternative/grunge music was exploding. Their song “Times Like These” (2002) came out right around the time I went home from the hospital after a seven-month stay recovering from a near-fatal brain injury, and it has since been a sort of theme song for my life. And Dave Grohl’s emotion—in both his songwriting and singing—is electric.

Harry Connick, Jr. – This man and his talent are the main reason I chose to become a piano minor—just watch this vid and be amazed like I was the first time I saw it in about ‘91. Multi-talented as a musician and actor (I’ll let the American Idol judge gig slide), a New Orleans native, and major man-crush material. I’ve seen him live twice, and I can sum up those shows in two words: Dopamine Overdose.

Beastie Boys – Their first album, Licensed to Ill (1986) came out when I was a junior in high school; the only rap I’d previously been exposed to, really, was Blondie’s “Rapture.” Here were three white Jews who not only played their own instruments, but were slinging some kickass rhymes? Fuhgeddaboudit. The B-Boys are the sole reason I will always love rap music.

Dusty Pas’cal – “Who?” you might be asking. I’ll tell you: one of the best folk singer/songwriters I’ve ever heard. Stark, simple songs with intricate lyrics and tons of feeling. He’s also one of my best friends from back in Central New York, where I lived for twelve years. And our friendship notwithstanding, I included him on this list along with world-famous artists because when I listen to his songs, I’m constantly reminded that it’s not about how popular you are, or how many records you’ve sold…it’s about the music, baby. Plain and simple.

Widespread Panic – I love them. (There, I said it.) They started out in the late ‘80s as a frat-rock jam band, and the only thing that’s really changed since then is that they now have a huge, dedicated following (who are called Spreadheads, if that tells you anything.) Each of Panic’s six players is a master of his instrument, and they play the kind of feel-good tunes I listen to almost exclusively on my thirty-minute trike rides to and from work every day. A lot of my friends through the years—many of whom are musicians themselves, and whose opinions I totally respect—absolutely hate them. “All their songs sound alike!” they say. “They play the same boring jams for forty-five minutes!” That’s okay with me. Again, to me it’s all about the music…and I. Love. This. Music!

And there you have it. I don’t know if I truly answered the questions I asked myself at the beginning of this dissertation…but hey, you can’t say I didn’t try.

There’s a statement I read while doing research for this article that really jumped out at me: “Music listening is one of the most enigmatic of human behaviors.” And maybe that it explains it: that music, no matter what, when, how, or why a person listens to it, is simply unexplainable.