Music and Your Brain

Yesterday, a friend on Facebook (apologies for forgetting who) shared this interesting National Geographic article titled, “Why Does Music Feel So Good?” by Virginia Hughes. Great read on the science behind why we like different music. The part I wanted to share regards a fascinating study conducted by researchers from Stanford and McGill and published in Science this year. To use Virginia Hughes words:

“In the new experiment, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track real-time brain activity as participants listened to the first 30 seconds of 60 unfamiliar songs. To quantify how much they liked the music, participants were given the chance to buy the full version of each song — with their own money! — using a computer program resembling iTunes.”

Essentially, test subjects were rating new music they had never heard before, and the scientists were gauging how their brains physically responded.

The research showed some cool stuff about how connections in the brain can predict which music the subjects would like, but to me, the fun part was how they picked songs to test on subjects and which songs were well received.

First, they surveyed the participants on their musical preferences (basically every album they had ever listened to and bought) and then:

“To create the list of unfamiliar songs, Salimpoor first looked at songs and artists that showed up on many of the volunteers’ surveys. She plugged those choices into musical recommendation programs, such as Pandora and iTunes, to find similar but less well-known selections. She also asked people who worked at local music stores what new songs they’d recommend in those genres.”

It’s an interesting list of songs from a few years ago: some are recognizable and a bunch aren’t. They also screwed up some of the names: e.g. Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs is the Artist while “Garden” is the Song Title and Sun Hands is by Local Natives, not Gorilla Manor, which is the Album title.

I made a Spotify Brain Study Playlist so you can listen to the tracks yourself.

Note: 6 tracks weren’t on Spotify, but you can listen elsewhere: links provided:

33. Man/Miracle – Hot Sprawl
39. Melissa Auf Der Mauer – 22 Below¹
40. Nouvelle Vauge – Lalala
41. A.C. Newman – Elemental
44. Yuksek & Chromeo – So Down
52. Shout it Out – Princeton (Fol Chen Remix)²

¹ Not the piano version, which I couldn’t find.
² I included the pre-remixed version in the Spotify playlist

Stimulating Tracks Ranked According to the Amount Paid by Test Subjects

Rank Artist Song Title
1 April Smith and the Great Picture Show  Terrible Things
2 Coco Rosie  Smokey Taboo
3 Ratatat  Neckbrace
4 Lo-Fi-Fnk  City
5 Lille  Tall Shoulders
6 Gramatik  Tearing it Up
7 Jonsi  Go do
8 Crystal Castles  Baptism
9 Barth  Customer 5
10 Angus & Julia Stone  Black Crow
11 Neighbors  Friends
12 Cut Copy  Feel the Love
13 Garden  Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs
14 Broken Bells  The High Road
15 BreakBot  Baby I’m Yours
16 Miami Horror  Moon Theory
17 Gorilla Manor  Sun Hands
18 Norman  No Clouds
19 Suckers  Black Sheep
20 Florence + the Machine  Drumming Song
21 Charlotte Gainsbourg  Heaven Can Wait
22 Kyteman  She Blew Like Trumpets
23 White Lies  To Lose My Life
24 Koop  Island Blues
25 School of Seven Bells  Caldo
26 Band of Horses  Factory
27 Codeine Velvet Club  Vanity Kills
28 Black Rebel Motorcyle Club  Beat the Devil’s Tatto
29 Kid Dub  Dub Step
30 Admiral Freebee  Always on the run –
31 Lille  Robert Cohn
32 Ladyhawke  Danny & Jenny
33 Man-miracle  Hot Sprawl
34 Massive Attack  Saturday Comes Slow
35 Owen Pallet  Lewis Takes off His Shirt
36 C-mon & Kypski  High on a Wire
37 Moving Units  Anyone
38 The Black Keys  Ten Cent Pistols
39 Melissa Auf Der Mauer  22 Below (Piano Version)
40 Nouvelle Vague  Lalala
41 A. C. Newman  Elemental
42 Empire of the Sun  Standing on the Shore
43 The Presets  This Boy’s in Love
44 Yuksek & Chromeo  So Down
45 Music Go Music  Warm in the Shadows
46 Yeah Yeah Yeah’s  Heads will Roll
47 Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah  Goodbye to Mother and the Cove
48 Caro Emerald  A Night Like This
49 Trentemoller  Sycamore Feeling
50 Midnight Juggernauts  Shadows
51 Elephants  Warpaint
52 Shout it Out  Princeton (Fol Chen Remix)
53 Kaskade  Fire in Your New Shoes
54 Boys like Girls  Love Drunk
55 Toro Y Moi  Low Shoulders
56 She and Him  I’m Gonna Make it Better
57 Vivian Girls  My Love will Follow Me
58 LCD Soundsystem  Pow Pow
59 King Kooba  Static Society
60 Hacienda  Go to get back home

Source: Robert Zatorre’s Lab at McGill University

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About Tony

Lives in Austin, Texas and likes music, art, philosophy, and random stuff.
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