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How we respond to music varies between individuals. Some get goosebumps for some music, others never get it. And that may be due to differences in the brain.

Brain scientist Robert Zatorre, professor of cognitive neuroscience from McGill University in Montreal, researches how the love for music look in the brain.

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It is often during youth you first establish a really strong emotional experience to music, at the same age that you often fall in love the first time.

Previous studies have linked listening to and making predictions about music with activation in reward centers of the brain but have produced conflicting results on how musical predictions and surprises relate to pleasure.

The new research study employed a mathematical model to determine the predictability and uncertainty of musical fragments and then asked listeners to rate how much they liked the songs.

The results show that listeners preferred songs of medium complexity, such as those that counterbalanced uncertain expectations with ultimately predictable musical events. Conversely, songs affording more certain expectations could contain more surprising musical events and still be liked.

These findings support long-hypothesized optimal zones of predictability and uncertainty in musical pleasure with formal modeling, relating the pleasure of music listening to the intrinsic reward of learning.

The researchers conclude that most people prefer songs with only a moderate amount of uncertainty and unpredictability. Music that balance uncertain expectations with ultimately predictable events. Hence, we want our songs to be interesting, but we still want them to be a bit like what we’ve heard before.

“An interaction between IC and entropy further suggested preferences for more predictability during more uncertain contexts, which would facilitate uncertainty reduction. Repeating stimuli decreased liking ratings but did not disrupt the preference for intermediate complexity. Together, these findings support long-hypothesized optimal zones of predictability and uncertainty in musical pleasure with formal modeling, relating the pleasure of music listening to the intrinsic reward of learning.”

The team argues that we enjoy that particular musical recipe because of the human brain’s intrinsic desire to learn. The process of learning involves updating inaccurate predictions and validating accurate ones. When we learn something, our brain releases dopamine, which makes us feel good and be motivated to learn again.

Reference:

Benjamin P. Gold, Marcus T. Pearce, Ernest Mas-Herrero, Alain Dagher, Robert J. Zatorre. Predictability and uncertainty in the pleasure of music: a reward for learning? The Journal of Neuroscience, 2019; 0428-19 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0428-19.2019