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Ben Parker/Assistant Photography Editor

May 6, 2019

Music on the Brain: Deconstructing the Science Behind Musical Processing and Genre Preference

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From EDM to punk rock, everybody likes music to some extent. This is not just determined by one’s interest — there is a neurological explanation for it. Emily Hurwitz ’21, an undergraduate researcher in the Music Cognition Lab, explains how our brain processes music, why we prefer certain music genres and the emotional complexities of music perception.

“When you listen to music, your auditory system first breaks down soundwaves so your brain can process what is happening in the music,” said Hurwitz. Before the waves reach the brain, the ear helps filter and process the sound based on its fundamental frequency. Then, the cochlea encodes the pitch and the auditory pathways would send sound information to the auditory cortex in the brain, she said.

According to Hurwitz, in the primary auditory cortex, pitches are represented in a manner that is analogous to how pitches are represented on a piano. The secondary and tertiary regions of the auditory cortex work to process more complex aspects of tone.

“There are a lot of similarities between how we process music and speech, and there are a lot of different opinions about whether we are using the same or different pathways and mechanisms for each,” Hurwitz said.

Hurwitz said that listening to music activates many different parts of the brain that aren’t even specific to music. These are parts of the brain that are involved in other activities, such as listening to speech, motor planning and emotional processing.

For example, rhythmic processing involves a lot of overlapping structures, such as the basal ganglia, cerebellum, prefrontal cortex and motor areas.

“Processing of timbre, or the characteristic sound quality, is often associated with the right superior temporal lobe. The limbic system, which includes areas such as the amygdala and hippocampus, is involved in the processing of emotion in music,” Hurwitz said.

Hurwitz also explained why different people tend to gravitate towards different genres of music and why different genres are more popular than others — emotional states, whether they’re alone and the familiarity of the music all play into it.

According to Hurwitz, people tend to prefer music that has medium levels of complexity and exposure, such as songs that people are familiar with but not overexposed to.

“Music listening also sometimes depends on the listener’s emotional state. It has been suggested that some people may like listening to sad music as a coping mechanism, as sad music relates to their emotions. People find solace in being able to express their emotions through music,” Hurwitz said.

Beyond science, Hurwitz said it is important to note that music really is a social experience.

“Music has been used in social coherence for centuries, as it is often involved in ceremonies such as Slope Day to bring people together,” Hurwitz said. “Sociologists hold that people come together to make music based on their interests and widely shared cognition allows this bonding to happen,” Hurwitz said.

According to Hurwitz, regardless of the artist, the act of standing in a crowd, listening to live music, with thousands of other people can contribute significantly to the psychological experience of music.

“There’s a euphoric sense of community at concerts,” Hurwitz said.