Scientific explanation for this (music related)?
June 30, 2019 4:16 AM   Subscribe

Im curious why a good song (according to my taste) resonates with me emotionally more the first few times I hear it vs after listening to it on repeat (basically bingeing on the song) or listening consistently for many years. Is it a simple issue of novelty vs familiarity, or what is going on exactly?

To complicate things, a small handful of songs still retain much (but not all) of their original emotional power for me, no matter how many times I've heard them, while others absolutely do not. I can't account for this!

And to clarify, what I mean is not that the song actually sounds different in a technical sense, but in that I no longer get the same uplifting feeling from hearing it. Kind of like how the first few bites of food always taste the best, or how using the same amount of an addictive substance will no longer produce the same effects after a while of building tolerance to it.

Maybe this is in the area of neurology?
posted by CancerSucks to Science & Nature (5 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I think I understand what you are asking, but can I ask for clarification? By “song”, do you mean:

1. an audio performance that (usually) includes both vocals and music, mixed together into a “song”?
2. the lyrics of a song? (for instance, the song “The Pusher” was originally written by Hoyt Axton but became popular after it was recorded by the band Steppenwolf)
3. an audio performance that must include vocals and music?
4. other?

I’d tend to assume #1 above, but then you’ve got songs like “Mad World” or “Hurt” that were made popular by the writer of the lyrics, and then became popular again when another artist recorded their interpretation of the song.

Sorry to be pedantic, but I know people who argue endlessly about this kind of thing.

As for “science”, I can’t offer anything authoritative, but I’d imagine it’s a combination of things like the Primacy / Recency Effect along with principles of learning and memory, and perhaps even Pavlovian conditioning (I’ve heard tales of people getting into a car wreck while listening to (say) Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” - and afterwards they just don’t find themselves motivated to listen to that song ever again).

If you accept the spreading activation theory of memory, listening to a song is pulling up a bag full of memories each time. But some people think that whenever we recall a memory, we alter it. After you listen to a song 20 times, that bag of memories may contain somewhat different contents?

There have been fMRI studies attempting to find out what happens when people listen to music, which isn’t really an answer to your question but might be interesting, anyway. I realize I’m not giving you much more than you could find in an article in New Scientist but overall I feel safe saying that a) there’s an awful lot about music we don’t understand, and b) any answer to your question is going to be based largely on theories (versus facts).
posted by doctor tough love at 6:51 AM on June 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Shock of the new, basically. The thrill of discovery. The honeymoon period. Etc.

Eventually, you become used to the song, to the point where you know it inside and out. There's nothing new there. It becomes just another part of life for you. Thrill is gone.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:08 AM on June 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Looks like dopamine is involved, as it is with many pleasurable activities and novel experiences. And that probably explains why live music is enhanced with an alcohol buzz, and why people over 40 often stop seeking new music.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:11 AM on June 30, 2019

I remember talking to a composer at a party. He said that his knowledge of how different musical effects are created interfered with his ability to be moved by the music. Too much of his reaction was more like "oh, violins to make us feel weepy." I think the reaction you describe is a similar thing in a more mild form. You know the poignant ending is coming, and the effect is discounted.

This is not to say it will never come back. It may be rekindled by circumstance ("your song" on your anniversary) or by a fresh and powerful new performance, especially if live.
posted by SemiSalt at 11:22 AM on June 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @doctor tough love, I mean #1 and #3 in my case!
posted by CancerSucks at 11:44 AM on June 30, 2019

« Older Simple family device access control for Macs   |   Would you like to play a game? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.