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Fresh Music Captivates Our Minds by Synchronizing Brainwaves

Neuroscience-based research illuminates why overplayed songs become tiresome.

 Romanova Natali/Shutterstock
Source: Romanova Natali/Shutterstock

Music has the power to captivate an audience by synchronizing their brainwaves, according to a new study published this week in Scientific Reports. The researchers used EEG to measure the synchronization of brainwaves as an audience of musicians and non-musicians listened to familiar and unfamiliar excerpts of instrumental classical music.

Jens Madsen led this study along with senior author Lucas Parra of The City College of New York and conducted research in collaboration with Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis and Rhimmon Simchy-Gross from the University of Arkansas. (For more see Parra Lab and Margulis' Music Cognition Lab)

One of the most notable takeaways of this research is that the repetition of overly familiar music appears to cause most listeners' brain engagement to decrease. On the flip side, unfamiliar music tended to keep listeners' brains engaged and sustained the audience’s attention, especially for those who had some musical training.

Interestingly, when members of the audience were all engaged by the same piece of music, their neural responses synchronized, and their brains got on the same wavelength. "What is so cool about this, is that by measuring people's brainwaves we can study how people feel about music and what makes it so special," Madsen said in a statement.

We all know from life experience that listening to a song that you love again and again is much different than watching a movie multiple times. Usually, by the third time you’ve seen the same movie, it becomes significantly less interesting than it was during your initial viewing. But with music, there's an inverted-U curve that typically goes through three stages: (1) a new song isn't totally engaging, because it's unfamiliar; (2) after a few listens, there's a sweet spot when the song becomes attention-grabbing and rewardingly familiar; (3) if the song is overplayed and heard too frequently, it becomes uninteresting and dull.

My daughter and I both experienced this “inverted-U” phenomenon with the Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper duet, “Shallow,” before and after their breathtaking performance at The Oscars, which was the tipping point. When A Star Is Born first came out, my daughter and I felt sort of meh about the song "Shallow." But after a few listens, it became our favorite song; we’d always turn it up on the car radio and sing along. “Shallow” held our attention for months. However, after winning “Best Song” at the Academy Awards in February, "Shallow" shot up to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and was on the radio ad nauseam.

Yesterday, I was driving my 11-year-old daughter to school, and "Shallow" came on the radio, yet again. With a sense of extreme urgency, she blurted out: "Please, change the station! I cannot take this song anymore. It’s sooo overplayed!” I said, “But I thought you love Lady Gaga?” She said, “I still love Lady Gaga, but I’ve heard this song way too many times . . . It’s gotten really boring.”

Madsen and his co-authors address this real-world phenomenon of overplayed songs through a more academic lens in their recent paper: “A large body of research in psychoaesthetics traces the inverted-U shaped curve in 'hedonic value' (which might be thought about as some kind of composite of enjoyment, interest, and attentiveness) across multiple exposures to a particular stimulus — especially a piece of music. As listeners encounter a piece again and again, they tend to enjoy it more and more, until a threshold beyond which liking diminishes with further repetitions.”

The authors also explain the differences between how the brain responds to familiar and unfamiliar music based on inverted U-shaped type responses:

“In this study (Madsen et al., 2019), inter-subject correlation increased when participants listened to music composed in a familiar style compared to music composed in an unfamiliar style. Prior experience with a style shapes listener expectations and provides an entry point for engagement even on the first hearing. Music written in a less familiar style cannot captivate attention as easily or uniformly. Conceptualized in terms of the inverted U-shaped response so prevalent in psychoaesthetics, familiar music can come in closer to the peak on the first hearing, while unfamiliar music can require more exposure to engage listeners. Indeed, as participants listened and relistened to music written in a familiar style, engagement decreased, but this drop did not occur for music written in an unfamiliar style.”

You can listen to all 20 musical pieces that were played to study participants and watch their EEG responses by clicking here. For this post, I’ve curated four prime examples from each category:

1. Experiment 1 — Familiar: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — Symphony No. 24 in B Flat, K. 182: 1. Allegro Spiritoso

2. Experiment 1 — Unfamiliar: Igor Stravinsky — Piano Sonata (1924), Movement 1

3. Experiment 2&3 — Familiar: Ludwig van Beethoven — Egmont Overture, Op. 84

4. Experiment 2&3 — Unfamiliar: Philip Glass — String Quartet No.5 - Part 3

Across the board, study participants with formal musical training were more likely to sustain attention — as marked by more inter-subject correlation — even if the instrumental musical excerpt was unfamiliar.

The authors sum up the significance of these findings in the paper’s conclusion: "This paper suggests a new methodology for tracking musical engagement via EEG. It also presents neuroscientific evidence to bolster theories in psychoaesthetics that arose in the 1970s before it was possible to use techniques other than behavioral to investigate them. Future research could harness the potential of measuring ISC to reveal more about how music captivates the mind."

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Jens Madsen, Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, Rhimmon Simchy-Gross, and Lucas C. Parra. "Music Synchronizes Brainwaves Across Listeners with Strong Effects of Repetition, Familiarity and Training." Scientific Reports (First published online: March 5, 2019) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-40254-w