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Piano playing: science vs. psychology, Part 2

A few posts ago, I introduced you to the first part of my project about the human brain and its reaction to music. Today, I’d like us to dive deeper into the feeling of pleasure which music can cause. Let’s learn what scientists and psychologists have discovered about the mechanism that makes us enjoy things. I remember that when I was working on this project I was struck how universal these rules were - it was an essay about pleasure assisting music but I had a feeling that it could have as well been a study on what attracts and repels us in life and how we experience joy and distress in general.

Music and Pleasure

In the previous post we followed a long way that a sound signal has to go to be transformed from ‘meaningless’ molecules vibrations to a trigger of pleasure. Now, I would like us to look more closely into the feeling of delight itself. What exactly do we enjoy in music? Why our preferences differ? Does ‘the absolute beauty’ defined by physical laws exist or is every parameter of our perception determined psychologically?


To evoke the highest level of pleasure music has to keep auditor’s attention. All of us, no matter how well educated or culturally involved, have surely experienced this feeling during a concert when our thoughts dangerously shift towards new sweater we bought, a film we watched the night before or dinner waiting at home. Good news is that we do not have to feel guilty about that. Scientists, along with psychologists, agree that, in certain cases, we simply have no choice – it is a structure of our brains that is to be ‘blamed’. The vast majority (about 85%) of auditory neurons is subject to a process called habituation. This means that after long stimulation they stop responding. In extreme situations, if our brain is continuously ‘attacked’ by a sound signal of the same pitch, volume, timbre and all other parameters we physically deafen to it. ‘This comes as no surprise to psychologists, who have long known that the brain is ultimately only interested in change’(7).


Human beings are creatures full of contradictions. On the one hand, we need variable stimulation to enjoy our actions; on the other hand, we like when things repeat and get predictable. A group of Spanish scientists carried out a research focused on familiarity of music and its impact on a level of evoked pleasure. They tested a group of volunteers comparing their brains’ reactions to familiar and unfamiliar pieces. The results showed remarkable increase in activity of limbic and paralimbic regions as well as higher dopamine release in response to familiar tunes. The effect was the most noticeable when the piece at the same time matched auditor’s preferences, but even without this factor, in case of a previously unknown compositions, fMRI scans changed between first and following listenings. ‘Hence, familiarity seems to be a crucial factor in making the listeners emotionally engaged with music.’(8)

The exposure effect, as literature calls the phenomenon described above, can also be viewed in a wider context. Since the mystery of personal musical preferences still has a lot of areas that remain scientifically unexplained, it has become a subject for speculations. One of them considers a theory according to which musical taste is shaped by two different factors. On the one hand it depends on our genes – ‘hard-wired’ brain responses to certain triggers (auditory neurology) and personality. We can even observe a link between our choice of music and drug preferences. Different kinds of personalities reach out for substances enhancing different kinds of moods and music is often used in the very same way, for example, hard rock as energizing cocaine, cool-jazz as relaxing marijuana, classical music as depersonalizing psychedelics. On the other hand, our musical taste is strongly affected by exposure to external influences, especially at the young age. We have all heard and read passionate disputes on the significance of children’s acculturation and the need of higher level of basic musical education. It indeed has a crucial impact on how children’s brains will process music when they grow up but statistics show a bit disturbing occurrence. Apparently, regardless of education, most people ‘imprint’ musical taste in their adolescence adopting preferences of their peers. For teenagers, music is a symbol of belonging to a group, it defines youth subcultures, unites their followers and draws lines between others. However natural it seems, the intriguing part is that these adolescent preferences stick with most people until their graves. The associations created at this emotional time of life are so strongly engraved in the brain that opening up a heavy metal or techno lover to classical music in his adulthood can turn out to be an impossible task (9).

Anticipation system

The early education and childhood experiences are not meaningless. Our brains are ‘programmed’ in patterns. We learn to anticipate certain repetitiveness of occurrences and actions– a millisecond before we sit on a sofa we expect it to sink down a bit, opening a window we already ‘hear’ the outside noise, touching a door handle we are sure it will go down. We pick the most important data, simplify it and categorize according to the previous experience (10). This is how the evolution adapted us to handle billions of signals from the outside world in a quick and not overloading way. The same pattern applies to processing music.

We imprint on our brains certain anticipations connected with the sound of the instrument, tempo of the piece, melodic phrasing, rhythmic structures, harmonies etc. Absolutely every music parameter is subject to this mechanism. The number of components that we are able to notice and analyze in a certain piece depends on a level of our exposure to them during our whole life up to the moment of listening. Of course, the exposure to ‘good’ music performed in a ‘good’ way imprints ‘good’ anticipations. Childhood experiences get most ingrained in the brain and therefore play the most important role in this process; hence, the importance of early acculturation. Regardless of our education, the most primary element that all auditors with no brain damage are able to process is melody (that is why majority of pop-culture hits do not bother to develop any other components further than the necessary basics). Big percentage of listeners respond also to the rhythm – or, more precisely, to the meter as pulsation of the beat. Lower number is sensitive to harmonic changes, even fewer auditors are able to consciously follow and appreciate phrasing. The essence of musical education actually centers on moving this perceptional limit further and further. Of course, the process of adapting our brains to various skills continues throughout the whole life but the longer we train it in a certain area, the higher results we may achieve.

However, what is actually this whole analytical race about? The answer is: pleasure. We seek enjoyment in every action taken – it is a kind of motivation system pushing us towards survival and development. The same mechanism drives us towards music. We can take pleasure from it in various non-intellectual ways, for example, by performing it with other people and enjoying the feeling of contribution and sharing, by dancing to it and letting go off stress and other negative emotions or by listening to it after a long day of work and just relaxing. However, there is also a higher level of pleasure which music can provide. First of all, it can be the pleasure derived from an intellectual involvement, a task successfully completed by our brains. As Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz stated: ‘Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting’ (11). This is the area where the exposure effect has its role to play. According to scientists’ research, we feel the highest intellectual pleasure when our brains are challenged but not beyond their capacities. This means that if we train them to process a lot of musical parameters in an advanced way, we give ourselves access to the most complex kinds of music as a source of more stimulators of pleasure. Apart from delight in successful processing of music there is also another kind of enjoyment. This one is caused by the anticipation system. Some psychologists claim that the appearance of pleasure in general can be simplified to a ‘yes-no’ response to our brains’ anticipations. In restaurants we pick dishes assumed to be tasty and if they meet or even exceed our expectations we feel pleasure – if not, we get irritated or disappointed. When we put our hand in a wallet to take out a ten-dollar bill, which was supposed to be there, and we do not find it, we get angry but when it is there, as expected, we experience a kind of peaceful pleasure. This rule applied to music means that we take pleasure from hearing a piece or a certain rendition that meets our anticipations. The more musical aspects turn out to be as we expected, the higher the level of delight (12).


7 R. Jourdain, Music, The Brain and Ecstasy, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1997, p. 54

8 C. S. Pereira, J. Teixeira, P. Figueiredo, J. Xavier, S. L. Castro, E. Brattico, Music and Emotions in the Brain: Familiarity Matters, 2011,Retrieved

9 R. Jourdain, Music, The Brain and Ecstasy, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1997, p. 261-263

10 R. Jourdain, Music, The Brain and Ecstasy, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1997, p. 54

11 A. Graham, The Sum of You: Teach Yourself, Hodder Education, London, 2011, p. 5

12 R. Jourdain, Music, The Brain and Ecstasy, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1997, p.311

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