Music: Rocket Science or Memory?


There’s nothing better than playing your favourite song on repeat until you know all the words – it’s a craving, an addiction. But why? What is it that makes our brains tick?

For many English students, the question ‘what’s your favourite book’ quickly becomes the stuff of nightmares – purely because it is often too difficult to give one definitive answer. On the other hand, almost everyone seems to have a favourite song, whether temporary or permanent. If you’ve ever had that addictive feeling about a song, you have probably experienced the restlessness that sets in when the song ends, until you cave in and hit repeat. While one person’s cup of tea is classical, another’s is metal. Although genres are all very different, there is also a lot in common with how they are composed. So how is it that a particular grouping of instruments, notes and rhythms produces such a unique reaction, different for every person that hears it?

In July 2015, neuroscientist and musician Daniel Levitin gave a talk entitled ‘Unlocking the Mysteries of Music in Your Brain’ as part of the BBC Proms series. In the lecture he explored scientific and evolutionary explanations for how we listen to music and what effects it can have on the brain. One particularly memorable moment was when someone in the audience relayed how she had suffered a brain tumour, and afterwards could not listen to dissonant music without having a seizure. This comment prompted a discussion in which Levitin argued that if people grew up hearing dissonance from a very early age, they would be able to predict the patterns and sing along to obscure music, in the same way that most people are able to sing the final note of a scale. That seems mind-boggling to most people – imagine singing along to Schoenberg and thinking “"Wow, great! This tune is so catchy!”. So while there is clearly a correlation between the brain’s response and musical genres, there is also a significant amount of environmental possibility. Equally, every now and then, an article crops up about someone who has woken up from a coma as Mozart reincarnated. It isn’t just music – they experience other creative abilities, such as speaking a different language, known as ‘Savant Syndrome’. The main explanation offered by experts for this is that what we hear and learn consciously is further absorbed at a deeper level, unconsciously. Therefore, learning French at school or hearing a Beethoven sonata remains in people’s brains without conscious knowledge, and is potentially obtainable should they experience some mental alteration or trauma.

I have a personal example of this osmosis effect; my dad is very musical, and I grew up listening to a lot of Latin American and traditional jazz music, as well as 20th Century impressionism. Now that I write music, the sounds I have been hearing all my life seem inherent to the point that a similar style emerges without much technical thought. This is what I think influences musical taste – your brain is definitely wired to respond positively and negatively to certain sounds, so within this, what you have reacted to as a child continues to develop as you perpetuate your listening of certain genres. It makes sense when you think about all the other things that develop in early childhood (thanks Freud).

Levitin’s lecture is available at this link: