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Tuesday, 3 April 2018

The Best Way To Enjoy New Music

One thing I’ve always wondered was how many listens it takes to “like” an album. There’s always those albums that you fall in love with instantly, but most (for me) I have to listen to a few times to appreciate it as a whole.

This question was even more important. What if I’m passing on songs simply because I didn’t like it on the first listen? Why do I fall in love with some songs instantly, but some take time? I decided to get to the bottom of this. First, I had to find out why we like music in the first place.


Biologically, we’re wired to love music. A study found that when listening to your favorite music, your brain starts to release dopamine into the nucleus accumbent, or “reward circuit” of your brain, at peak moments in the song. It feels great.

But another part of your brain, the caudate nucleus, also plays a part in music appreciation. The difference between the cuadate nucleus and the nucleus acumbent is that the former releases dopamine in anticipation of parts of a song. This normally happens with songs that you are already familiar with. You might experience this anticipatory rush right before the chorus of I Knew You Were Trouble. As the drums start beating faster and faster, you get ready for the drop, and your caudate nucleus is kicking it into gear. You know it’s coming, and so does your brain.


So what happens when we listen to a new song? According to research done at Berkeley, your brain is busy looking for patterns to follow when listening to new music. Jill Suttie writes:

When people listen to unfamiliar music, their brains process the sounds through memory circuits, searching for recognizable patterns to help them make predictions about where the song is heading.

This may explain why we’re bad at working and listening to brand new music. I do my best work when listening to something familiar, because my brain already knows the song pretty well.

So how does your brain decide to like a song?

Turns out that your brain can be pretty closed-minded when it comes to new sounds. While listening to that new indie pop single, your brain is trying to find the pattern and anticipate what’s going to happen next. If the song doesn’t fit into the pattern that your brain expected, you probably won’t get that dopamine hit you wanted. As a result, you won’t like the song on your first listen.

However, if your brain is successful at finding familiar elements (beats, patterns, melodies) and anticipating emotional high-points, then your brain will release the dopamine that you were looking for, and you’ll probably like the song.

“The dopamine hit comes from having their predictions confirmed — or violated slightly, in intriguing ways.”
This explains why pop music is so popular. It follows a path that many people are able to analyze and predict correctly. That’s also why freeform jazz is harder to enjoy.


We’ve established that you like certain songs because they follow a template you already know to a certain degree. But what if you want to break out into a new genre of music? Sometimes I listen to an album that got a 9.something on Pitchfork and it just sounds like a bunch of unnecessary noises. I like nice things, so shouldn’t I like this album?

To start enjoying new music from any genre, one of the keys is establishing that template in your brain. To do that, all you need is repetition.

I was able to transition from alternative rock and indie to electronic by first listening to some songs that were a bit of a crossover. I remember finding Bag Raiders on Spotify radio and loving a couple of their songs, even though they’re considered “an Australian electro duo”.

I was able to branch out because I found a song that combined some elements of indie rock and a brand new genre (electronic). I loved the song and a couple of other songs by the group. And ever since then, I’ve found myself listening to more and more electronic music as a result.

Every once in a while I’ll pick up a highly praised album, like Tame Impala’s Currents, and play the whole album 3–5 times over a week while I work. I’ve found sometimes that I like an album more if I hear the whole thing beginning to end and listen to it often.

But in the end, I can’t always explain my ears. I like what I like, but I’m always looking for something new. What are you listening to?

BY Justin Fowler

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