The Cognitive Allure of Music

An exploration of an obsession with New Kids on the Block

Posted Jun 02, 2016

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by Rebecca Wallwork

Quick: Imagine you are fourteen again. You’re in your bedroom or you’re on summer vacation with endless days stretching before you. What are you listening to? Recently, I asked my husband this and he answered without skipping a beat: “Punk rock. And a bit of metal.”

“Do you still like that music today?” I asked.

“Yeah. And when I hear something from that time, it feels…”

He trailed off but I knew what he meant. There was an emotional connection between that time a couple of decades ago and now. The music, and his reaction to it, was special. There is something indelible about what we grow up on, something inescapable. I feel it, too, only my answer isn’t half as cool as my husband’s punk rock and metal.

When I was fourteen, I was immersed utterly and completely in New Kids on the Block. I was one of those New Kids fans. I had the t-shirts, the bedroom plastered with posters, I even had the dolls.

Growing up in Australia, I only saw them perform twice as a teenager. But when New Kids reunited in 2008, after a 15-year hiatus, I went to four concerts in the space of three months, and have been to a dozen more since. What keeps drawing me back to see these men, now in their mid-40s, sing the same songs I’ve already seen them perform live? Is it something in the music itself, is it the New Kids’ good looks and personalities, or is there something else at play here? These are questions I set out to answer when researching my book, Hangin’ Tough (Bloomsbury Academic), an exploration of the New Kids’ multi-platinum sophomore album of the same name.

In writing my book, I had to set my “New Kids beer goggles” aside and try to be as objective as possible by seeking out opinions from others—those who worked in the 1980s music scene as well as music cognition experts who could tell me what was going on in my brain when I forked up cash for yet another concert, 25 years after I first fell for the band. Was there something in the music or in the live performance specifically that could explain this fierce devotion?

“There is so much more stimuli when we hear live concerts,” Susan Rogers, director of the Berklee Music Perception and Cognition Laboratory, told me. “We get to watch performers’ body gestures and that will mimic emotions in the music. Then, through the emotional contagion, we will begin to feel what the singer is feeling. When I listen to Led Zeppelin, I feel… not like Robert Plant, but I feel, there is a Led Zeppelin-ish quality about them that is unique to them and I like feeling like that.”

I’d read Daniel Levitin’s book, This is Your Brain on Music, and was intrigued by his premise that the music we hear when we’re 13 or 14 is what sticks with us for years to come, the music we come to think of as our own. Did this mean it was nostalgia propelling me and other New Kids fans into arena after arena for more and more live shows?

“I think there is a nostalgic component,” says Rogers. “But there is also the satisfaction of having your expectations met. Music is a lot like food in that we can have a craving for it and we want that same taste—to know exactly what we are going to get—and yet we are still delighted and happy when we get it.”

Both Rogers and researcher Valorie Salimpoor, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto’s Roman Research Institute, described for me how dopamine is released in the brain when we hear pleasurable music.

“What’s interesting,” Salimpoor added, “is that dopamine is usually increased when you know something that you like is coming up—you’re very excited about it and you’re anticipating it. That anticipation is what’s releasing the dopamine.”

A-ha! I thought. This explained why I have such a soft spot for the songs New Kids choose as their concert openers—the ones that ring out in the arena when my anticipation is at its highest. How comforting it was, too, to have a reason for what I had started to read as my own obsessive behavior. I wasn’t crazy—science made me do it! After experiencing the rush of my first New Kids concert all those years ago, the imprint of that pleasure made me want it again and again.

I went to my last New Kids show a year ago. There I was in the third row, screaming like I was 14 again. I looked around at the thousands of women around me doing the same and I marveled at the dopamine—flying around the arena like the confetti that fell from the ceiling.

Rebecca Wallwork is a writer, editor, content strategist, and the author of Hangin' Tough, an installment of the 33 1/3 book series.

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