Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Why Do Listeners Enjoy Music that Makes Them Weep? (podcast)

Huron, D. (2010) Why Do Listeners Enjoy Music that Makes Them Weep?, Music and the Brain. [podcast]. Available at: http://www.loc.gov/podcasts/musicandthebrain/podcast_huron.html
Summary of the content
Professor David Huron is the Head of the Ohio State University’s Cognitive and Systematic Musicology Laboratory, he is affiliated with the OSU’s Center for Cognitive Science and is the author of “sweet anticipations: music and the psychology of expectation.”
Cognitive and systematic musicology involves questions relating to music and emotion.  Some of the questions Professor Huron mentioned include “how is it that music evokes emotions?”,  “why do people willingly listen to music?”, “how do people learn music?” and “ in what ways do people differ, form culture to culture, in how they experience sound?” They try to understand the experiences people have from the perspective of evolutionary psychology and brain science.

The idea of surprise in music
The brain is sensitive so when there are surprises (deviations from what we expect) in the music, it is going to recognize those as violations.
“In the auditory world we are very tuned in. Large portions of the brain are oriented towards the role of prediction when you think about how that can enhance survival, any organism that can predict the future had an enormous advantage in preserving life..”– D. Huron

Modern Music
With regards to novelty in music, there are two kinds: One where people are aware that they are listening to something new and one where they are unaware.  Professor Huron mentions that “people only seem to prefer novelty when they are consciously aware of it ….” and “research suggests that novelty in music listening is not as important as people say it is”
Repetition of music
Professor Huron suggests that familiarity is important in music. In the 19th century the encore was usually a piece they had already performed.
Music and Sadness “What makes music sad and why do we enjoy it?”
“After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own….” – Oscar Wilde
The system is similar to having a gas pedal and a brake pedal. Part of the brain is tricked into thinking that we are actually experiencing something sad or grieving but another part of the brain is assessing the situation. This latter “breaking” mechanism is linked to the hormone prolactin which has the consoling effect. Professor Huron says that “the body is taking care of itself in a certain way... it is preventing your physiological response from going overboard.” Prolactin released can be measured in tears.

Reflections on the material
If the brain detects deviations in music as violations, I wonder how long or how many repetitions it takes to make those deviations no longer a violation. How long would it take us to get accustomed to musical patterns we are not used to and learn to like them? I have often heard a new song on the radio that I first disliked and then got accustomed to after a month. Is this experience explained by "violations" or something else? What implications does this have for cultural exchanges? If we always play the mainstream music, what implications does it have on our perspectives on “world” music that deviate from what we are used to? Do prediction in music and literature use the same brain mechanisms?

The point made about novelty in music listening not being “as important as people say it is” requires further insight. What does he mean by important? What kind of hormones are involved when listening to novelty music and how are they different when people are aware of the manipulation? How do brain mechanisms differ for those who create, not just listen, to new music?

I would like to study the role of prolactin as it applies to people in depression. Is there another hormone related to reducing overexcitement or is it also prolactin? Do people in depression produce lower levels of prolactin and so are not able to get the consoling effect? Does the amount of prolactin released vary if the stimulus creating the grief was not music but something else? How can we ensure that people get to the consoling stage?


LeaMikhaela said...

i love it..i love music, if i am depress i just listen to music that i can relate so i can let go the feelings i have inside..i cannot tell others my true feelings through music i can let go of it..

psychology education

Lynn said...

I find your point about beginning to like a song after hearing it a bunch of times particularly interesting - I often find that the more I dislike a song from the outset (unless it's just not my taste to begin with) the more it grows on me as it keeps popping up on the radio. I guess this would fall right into the idea of novelty not being as important as we think. I think popular music is an excellent example of this since so many chord progressions repeat themselves, and yet many listeners never tire of them!

I would be interested to see whether or not this consoling effect is actually more beneficial to mood improvement than listening to "cheery" music.

Elizabeth Roach said...

I really enjoyed your own personal reflection here, I think you posed some really great questions and they are similar to some of my own after listening to this podcast. Additionally, after reading a lot of Huron’s work over the course of these last few months I enjoyed hearing him elaborate on some of his ideas. In response to one of your comments: For me, at least when it comes to performing, it usually takes about 5-10 times for me to “re-write” a melody or phrase/riff that was previously engrained in my mind. This happens a lot if I read something wrong on my own, an intricate rhythmic motif for example, and then go into a rehearsal only to realize I had been displacing a 16th note (or something along those lines…). It is amazing how difficult it can be at first to make a change like this! Ironically, within a a short period of time it will become equally as difficult to recall that original line – We seem to only have a certain space allotted for this sort of thing in our working memory.