As part of our series on hearing loss, cognitive science and hearing aids, we’re continuing last week’s discussion with a very basic but key question: why are humans able to make sense of melodies (as opposed to noise, for instance)?
Born to listen
While people argue incessantly about “good” versus “bad” music, our musical preferences may have begun in the womb. Several studies have shown that humans begin to understand melody even before they are born. After the first trimester, babies in the womb can turn away and fuss when they hear dissonant melodies, or manifest themselves accordingly when they hear a good song – as some recent mothers can attest to. This means music is even more innate than crawling or walking.
Our brains go through an elaborate process when listening to music. The right side of the brain is generally associated with creative thinking, and it does play the primary role in understanding melody, harmony and pitch. However, the left side of the brain contributes to our auditory experience as well. The left side of the brain detects changes in frequency and intensity, which allows you to keep track of the pitch, tone and rhythm. While our brains are processing, we have an emotional response to the changes and variations within the music. According to a report in the New York Times, this ability to keep time with music is a singularly human faculty, and it draws out complex human emotions. If you have ever been moved to tears or gotten goose bumps while listening to a song, you can trust that your brain is going into overdrive at the same time.
We love the songs we know best, but it turns out that the mind appreciates most what it least expects. Your brain has been trained to look for patterns. Common melodies start to sound like dominoes, wherein one note sets off another. However, it turns out that the best musicians are actually playing with our expectations. Beethoven for instance, was said to develop a basic pattern – and then subtly shift the patterns over time. While our brains hustle to make sense of the melodic shifts, the mental activity excites our emotions. Imagine eating an ice cream cone, with the flavor changing just a little bit each time you take a bite. You may feel confused, and you will definitely be intrigued.
As the brain listens to these challenging songs, it craves a harmonic moment to make sense of it all. So the mind stays alert, listening for the changes, responding and shifting its expectations and waiting for the final payoff. If the song were just filled with the same old melodies, your brain would lapse right into boredom.
In conclusion, humans do not make sense of melody by memorizing the same patterns. Instead, our minds are constantly hunting for an elusive melody–seeking out the next musical thrill.