Whenever I’m facing something scary, whether it’s my thesis defense or a brand new workout class, I pull up a playlist I’ve designed specifically for the occasion. There are plenty of Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, and Dua Lipa jams to pump me up until I’m ready to take on any challenge that comes my way. Any music lover knows that a great song has the power to help you get a good cry out or calm you down enough to sleep, but if you’re wondering what happens in your brain when you listen to music, rest assured, science has some answers for you.
A new study, published in the latest issue of the journal Scientific Reports, investigated how listening to music affects your brain. Forty participants were given either music they were familiar with to listen to, or music they weren’t as familiar with, and while they enjoyed their tunes, researchers measured the participants’ brain activity. According to a press release from The City College of New York, the study found that the more you hear a certain song or type of music, the less your brain engages with it.
Of course, you might be thinking to yourself, "Well, if engagement decreases with repetition, then why do I still play the same Ariana Grande songs on repeat even though I’ve already listened to them dozens of times?" Well, here’s the catch: In the study, the findings were only true for music the participants were already familiar with. The unfamiliar music, on the other hand, didn’t lead to this drop-off in brain engagement, which could potentially explain why you’re able to listen to Ari’s song "NASA" over and over without getting bored — for now, at least. See, while the researchers didn’t identify the amount of listens that might qualify a piece of music as "familiar," I’m willing to bet that, if you listened to "NASA" again and again without stopping for a few months, your brain probably wouldn’t love it quite as much as it did those first few listens.
Music can also have a strong effect on your emotions by, in a sense, manipulating your body. For example, a 2009 study published in the scientific journal Circulation found that autonomic responses, such as your heart rate, can synchronize with the music you’re listening to, especially if it includes a number of crescendos. In other words, listening to a fast-paced rap song, for example, can pump you up emotionally because it can literally help your blood pump faster.
And you know the moment when the beat finally drops in a song after a lengthy pause? There’s a scientific reason why you want to break into a wild dance each time that happens. A study published in the scientific journal Nature Neuroscience investigated this connection and found that listening to music can make you feel euphoric by causing a dopamine release in your brain. The effect is even more powerful if you anticipate it happening, as is the case when the music pauses before delivering a high-energy return at the awaited beat drop.
But the emotional effects of certain songs aren’t necessarily universal. Your BFF might be a Slayer fan, while you swear by G-Eazy. “Depending on what styles you’re used to — Eastern, Western, jazz, heavy metal, pop — all of these have very different rules they follow," neuroscientist Valorie N. Salimpoor, PhD told National Geographic, "and they’re all implicitly recorded in your brain." Your brain then predicts that you’ll enjoy music similar to that which you listen to regularly, which might explain why people tend to stick to certain genres or to nostalgic albums that bring back memories of their childhoods.
So if you’re a diehard Jonas Brothers fan even as an adult, don’t feel like you have to hide your love for their music. It’s all explained by science.
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