The Psychology of Music: Memories, Liking, and Preference

For a while, I believed that art and science existed on two opposing ends of a spectrum. Where science seemed cold and calculated, art and music were filled with warmth and emotion. Any attempt to mix the two was both impossible and a bit demeaning toward the artist’s work. However, advances in modern technology and science have allowed for an increased understanding of why we appreciate certain pieces of art and not others, the effect of art on emotion, and the neurological basis of art-appreciation. This entry will primarily concern the psychological effects of music on the brain and our memories, and how we come to like certain types of music or certain songs. Major research studies mainly focus on the neurobiological and the level of familiarity as bases of liking, but they seem to overlook the societal-social causes, which I propose are as important, if not more important, than any other reason science has found.

It has been long established that familiarity is directly related to physical attraction in humans. This is best described by the “mere exposure” hypothesis presented by R.B. Zajonc in the 1960’s. He believed that by simply exposing someone to a stumulus, eventually the recognition would cause an increased aesthetic liking for that stimulus. Recently, this repeated exposure paradigm has been applied to the realm of music. The relative complexity of the song, as well as the familiarity with the genre for individuals was taken into account in a study conducted by David J. Hargreaves at the University of Leicester, England. He found that repeated exposure to a song, after controlling for objective and subjective musical complexity, would increase an individual’s liking for a song—to a point. The caveat of this study was that the subjects brought with them their “musical prejudice” which caused some individuals to experience no increased liking for a genre of music they were previously inclined to dislike.

While the aforementioned study showed that liking may increase within a genre due to repeated exposure, how do we first begin to learn to like music? There are numerous explanations, ranging from sociological-societal to biological predispositions, but Norman M. Weinberger, professor of neurobiology and behavior at the University of California, Irvine, believes that “music exists in every culture, and infants have excellent musical abilities that cannot be explained by learning.” Furthermore, another study noted that music “sounds right […] because they match the frequency ratios that our brains are primed to detect.” It would seem, then, that we are genetically inclined to like certain patterns of music that we are used to—beginning from before birth in hearing speech patterns. This, however, still does not adequately explain the emergence of “musical prejudice” that individuals experience. The second aspect of musical preference or prejudice has to do with the emotional relationship between music and memories. Just as a specific smell can evoke vivid memories, so too can music. A study by Janata, Tomic and Rakowski done in 2007 found that “as the songs increased in familiarity, so did the strength of the autobiographical memories associated with the songs.” Furthermore, “songs that were rated as 'pleasing' were more likely to evoke memories than 'not pleasing' songs.” However, because it was a correlation study, we are unable to determine if preferred songs evoke memories, or if memories caused the song to be deemed “pleasing.”

A researcher at the University of California, Davis thinks that he has found the cause behind the link between music and memories. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (seen left) with self-reports of the subjects, he discovered that “the region of the brain where memories of our past are supported and retrieved also serves as a hub that links familiar music, memories and emotion.” If this is the case, then memories linked to music and the moods of the individual in those memories can directly affect whether or not a song is “pleasing.” This is very similar to how a certain scent or smell can cause us to recall past events with a positive or negative point of view. With this in mind, the implications of studying music are profound. If music and autobiographical memory are linked, and music can be used as cues for memories themselves, then perhaps music can be an integral part of therapy for the treatment of memory-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Given that Alzheimer’s patients can perform music long after they have forgotten other things, along with the fact that memories are temporally and sequentially defined by a memory-based soundtrack—then the loss of memory due to the disease may potentially be curtailed by anchoring music to life events for easier recall.

In my opinion, the cause of musical prejudice or preference is directly related to social psychology in that music and culture are inextricably tied into the social cues we receive from others in society. From as early as two years of age, toddlers are inclined to imitate the actions of others and derive pleasure from the awareness that they are being imitated. As social creatures, humans like to have the knowledge that others accept their choices and preferences. Thus, we are reinforced to like things we see others liking, be it from the radio, from online social networking sites, or from dance clubs and parties. When people have preferences that go against the beliefs, attitudes, or values of others, cognitive dissonance arises. The drive to reduce cognitive dissonance is strong in humans and may lead to conformity of musical preference if the music one likes goes against larger societal norms.

The study of music and liking is, in the end, difficult due to the idiosyncratic nature of personal preference. However, the previous research findings, taken together, lead to the idea that we like music based on the memories associated with certain songs, similarity to music within a familiar genre, the familiarity of a specific song, and the social acceptance that goes along with liking a song that others like, as well. In the end, science and art are not opposing factions. Each can be used to learn more about the other. Not only do we see beauty in science—in the study of the human body or mathematical functions, but we also see calculated patterns in the arts. If music can be used as a treatment for diseases like Alzheimer’s disease or chronic depression, perhaps more research needs to be conducted to determine the different ways music can impact our lives.

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