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Biology, Psychology

Music and my brain

Shuffle mode on my iPod creates some interesting juxtapositions where a comedy A Capella group may be followed by some hard rock  which is subsequently followed by some swing and jazz. So what is it about music that we can like some styles, and I like a lot of styles, and not enjoy others?

So, picking three of my favourite pieces of music – Mime Abduction by The Arrogant Worms, Master of Puppets by Metallica, and Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin – I am going to see why these particular pieces appeal to me and what they might have in common.

Mime Abduction uses the rhythm and sounds of a tango as the backdrop to a story line about being abducted by a gang of angry mimes; playing on a societal stigma, perhaps bordering on fear, about mimes. I would argue that juxtaposing the seriousness of a tango helps to make the story line work because it pitches it as serious. It would not have the same impact if they had filled the music itself with nonsensical or funny sounds.

Master of Puppets is hard and driving and if you listen to the lyrics it contains a commentary about addiction. I define the addiction perhaps a little broader than the song does which contains lyrics such as “One taste of me” implying something like alcohol. But could it not also refer to things like capitalism, marketing, wealth which have driven a wide range of addiction from substance abuse to excessive consumption. The driving music reflects the obsessive nature of addiction of any sort.

Rhapsody in Blue is quite likely my favourite piece of music. Opening with a solo clarinet probably contributes to my affinity for the piece, but why don’t I turn it off once the trumpet and then the piano take over. I think perhaps the draw for me, aside from the incredible musicality of the whole piece is that the music seems to capture all the ins and outs, ups and downs, quiet moments and bombastic interludes of everyday life. There are no lyrics but there doesn’t need to be, the different instruments trade rhythms and melodies throughout and always the piano inserts itself. If I was writing a paper for an English class I would attribute symbolism to the piano that throughout it all, regardless of what is happening the individual, the piano, can insert itself and take some measure of control back from everyday life.

What do these pieces have in common? I know there are musical and story line elements that you could argue are similar. But instead I want to look a little into the science of musical preference. Certain elements of your personality have an impact on your musical preference but the one that appears to affect it the most is openness to experience. If you rate high in openness you are more likely to prefer complex and novel music which Rhapsody in Blue fits into without a doubt, and The Arrogant Worms as a whole puts together some of the most eclectic mixes of music into a single album of any group I know perhaps contributing to the novel side of things. You are also more likely to prefer music that is intense and rebellious: Metallica anyone? Open individuals also tend to like more diverse styles of music and not like contemporary popular music as much.

There is a lot of current research in this area. I couldn’t find whether these diverse pieces of music were likely to affect my brain differently, but I did find that there is a good chance that regardless of whether you like the pieces or not our brains would be reacting in similar ways to each piece.

Another aspect that intrigues me is how much of your brain is affected by listening to music, with even more activated by playing music. As someone who has trouble doing just one thing, I can sit and listen to music for hours without doing anything else. Does this relate to how much of my brain is engaged? Even more, I love the two hours I spend in rehearsal each week because I am rarely distracted by thoughts about the rest of my life. Does music help me to focus, at least on music?

So much current research and so little time but here are a few easy to digest pieces.

Psychology_of_music_preference – I know it’s wikipedia but there are a lot of references here

This is your brain on music

How playing an instrument benefits your brain

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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