Question of the Week

Why do songs sound better the more we listen to them?

Sun, 12th Oct 2008

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Jay Shankar asked:

Why do songs sound better the more we listen to them?


We put this to Adrian North, Professor of Psychology at Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh:

White headphones from the 1970's, model The reason why people seem to generally like music, or one of the reasons, is to do with the level of complexity in the melody. By complexity we mean basically how erratic the melody is or how varied the melody is. Basically, how weird-sounding the melody is. For example, all the modern classical music to many people would sound to be quite weird, quite complex. Whereas a lot of modern dance music has got a fairly repetitive melody and so a lot of people regard modern dance music as being low in complexity. We know in the grand scheme of things that people like moderately complex music; music that chops and changes a little bit but not too much. That's got big implications for how music fares when it's repeated. When you hear a piece of music the first time you don't really know what it's going to do next. When you hear it the second time you have a better idea of what it's going to do next. When you hear it the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh times then you start to have a very good idea how that melody's going to progress. The more often you hear a piece of music the less complex it seems to you. What that means is a piece of music that was originally too complex for you when you hear it a few too many times becomes moderately complex and you start to like it. Conversely a piece of music that was moderately complex and popular the first time you heard it, because you've heard it more times, it becomes simpler. Now it becomes too simple for you and you don't like it any more. In other words liking for music is determined by complexity but complexity decreases with the number of times you hear a piece of music. That change in the level of complexity changes how much you like the piece of music in question.


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As inputs are processed by neural networks and networks work on becoming completed by finding links to other networks which the can synchronize (harmonize) with, they need some factors fulfilled: time and repetition. Time is the duration that a neural network has to gain sufficient strength to lay down all the connections to form a sensation of "liking" the song, and is limited by the one time exposure to the song. The succeeding exposure strengthens the initial synchrony, adds additional time to further link to that what is likable (those qualities laid down from all musical exposures prior to the current event) and thus through repetition overcomes the limitation of the time factor in the singular exposure to the input. wannabe, Tue, 7th Oct 2008

Is this jsut familiarity? We like things we can predict and hence as we learn a piece of music it becomes predictable and hence likeable...? chris, Sat, 11th Oct 2008

Yes and that is just how familiarity works, neuronally speaking!
And since the brain is, after all, the most advance form of probability computing apparatus, it is soooo good at it. wannabe, Sat, 11th Oct 2008

Or maybe it is our ability to recognize, that lines up with what we might mistake as 'liking' something.
Myself I would have preferred the word 'familiarized' with 'something' instead of
But that's me:)


Btw: It's not true that they will sound better, the more you listen to them.
After some time you will get tired on it:)
Whatever it might be, as long as you're forced to hear it continuously.
And even if not more often than not:)
Lovely sentence that one:) yor_on, Fri, 26th Dec 2008

Sometimes though.... if i like a song to start with, i go off it quick, whereas if i hear a song i don't really like that much but i listen to it more and then i like it more and more i love it forever. I stopped buying songs that i like straight away as i know i'll just get sick of them, i wonder why that is? Morgan The Monkey, Sun, 28th Dec 2008

I've noticed that too! Chemistry4me, Mon, 29th Dec 2008

I don't think it works with Lady in Red. Pumblechook, Tue, 30th Dec 2008

Never heard of it, but you don't like it? I guess some songs do get a bit annoying after listening and listening to them, it depends on how much you do it though... maybe if you listened to a song once every 3-4 days you'll slowly like it, but if you listen to it 5-6 times a day, it can get up your nose... Chemistry4me, Wed, 31st Dec 2008

Where is the answer to this question? Chemistry4me, Mon, 8th Jun 2009

I've got a song that will get on your nerves
Get on your nerves, Get on your nerves
I've got a song that will get on your nerves
Get get get on your nerves

(Same tune as "Dinah Dinah show us your leg" - and there's probably a clean song with the same tune but I don't know it.) lyner, Tue, 9th Jun 2009

I know something you don't know,
you don't know, you don't know,
I know something you don't know and this is how it goes,

Altogether now:

I know something you don't know, you don't know,
I know something you don't know, and this is how it goes,
I know something you don know, you don;t know...etc

So any chance of an answer yet? Chemistry4me, Wed, 10th Jun 2009

Difficult question - why do songs "sound better" ......?

I think that this must surely be more to do with how you feel when you hear the opening bar of a song.

The processes involved obviously include identification and familiarity of a memory trace - what used to be called a long time ago an "engram".

But why do you feel better?  It must surely be to do with the way the brain is wired.

Why can I remember an episode when I smell a smell for example? 

Anyway, most likely,  I feel better when I hear a song, because the brain is wired to cause the familiarity of a song to trigger something in-built in your 'reward systems'. Maybe dopamine is produced in the upper bit of your spinal cord?  It probably has the same effect as me eating a curry that i love, that's all I can say.

Shibs, Tue, 6th Oct 2009

I agree here echochartruse, Wed, 7th Oct 2009

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