Let’s start off with a scenario. You’re at work. Things are particularly slow today. It seems like time is just dragging on and there’s no real motivation bubbling up inside you. The office radio station seems to be playing the same tired playlist over and over. And then…something changes. Suddenly you’re inspired. Suddenly, time seems to disappear, replaced by joy and drive. Your favorite song just hit the airwaves.
But that song…why is it your favorite? How did it surpass so many alternative sonic options to capture your heart and your eardrum’s preference? Well, it turns out science has some answers. Sure, everyone’s an individual and favorite songs vary from person to person, but there’s a lot more to it than we think.
The young and impressionable
From the moment we first recognize the concept of music, the sounds we hear through the air start to make an impression on us. This can begin as early as one and is definitely happening by age three. At these ages, we start to notice our parents, family, and friends moving and grooving to beats and rhythms. So naturally, we begin to follow suit.
This teaches our brains about important parts of the music and culture in which we grow up. We begin to recognize repeating patterns and those patterns begin to take part in our understanding of the world. Music during ages 1-3 is so powerful that it helps us learn information about every part of life.
Music in the formative years
By our preteen years (ages 10-12), our understanding of music and our musical tastes are solidifying. Believe it or not, this part of our brain is closing in on adulthood. But while our emotions are beginning to run wild, our brains are absorbing our experiences like a sponge. In other words, what you hear begins to attach itself to what you’re doing at the time and the emotions you are feeling while doing them. This is arguably the most powerful stage of development for music.
Sometimes we hear songs because our friends played them for us. Other times, we are exposed to them in the car or the mall. We may even be searching for music ourselves in a music store. However we find it, the music we hear is now making itself a permanent part of your brain and it’s memories.
Teens and music
As we hit our teenage years, we acquire more freedom of mobility and freedom of choice. Our interpersonal relationships and our environment still influence what we hear and when we hear it, but now we are making conscious choices about what we continue to listen to.
Do you remember wearing out that one CD in 9th grade? What about the song you heard at prom? I’ll bet you still remember the song that was playing while you had your first kiss. That’s because it made a huge impression on you and you chose to continue to listen to it.
By now, your taste in music is almost completely solidified. When you hit your late teens and early 20’s, your brain’s favorite tunes will have been set in stone. Humans are certainly able to change their musical preferences post 20, but it takes conscious effort on your part to break down the walls of familiarity.
I’m a familiar fan
All of this means something. If we break music down into its core components of beat/rhythm, tonality and scaler relationships, and timbre, we find that the type of music we like in our later years doesn’t diverge that much from our preferences in our younger years. Ever heard a seasoned citizen say, “Back in my day…”? Same principle. They’re saying that their music was a certain way and that’s how they prefer it.
So essentially, they like the music because of the memories and feelings it produces now. It’s the music they heard when they were young that left wonderful impressions on them or got them through heartbreak. It stuck, and it’s likely to be their preference for the rest of their life. There’s nothing wrong with that, but this could be the single greatest reason as to why you love your favorite song.
Another version of this principle has been used by the music industry for decades to “create” hits. Buckle up folks, I’m going to take you behind the curtain, so to speak.
It turns out that if you are exposed to a song enough times, you will eventually start to like it. Or at the very least, accept it. This is called the Mere-Exposure Effect, or Familiarity Principle. So, it’s not just that you heard a song or a genre during your most formative years that makes a song familiar and therefore one of your favorites, it’s also that you can simply be “brainwashed” into liking the song. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes the songs we love are genuinely good songs, but we’ve acquired a taste for them due to our continual exposure.
The brain’s happy place
Reason two can be tied to or develop from reason one, but it is also rooted in the brain’s response to sonic delayed gratification. Researchers discovered that in the lead up to the “hook” or “ear worm” of your favorite song, there’s a tension-release event happening. After you’ve heard a song once, or heard the same style of song before, your brain knows that there’s a climax approaching and relishes in the moment.
It turns out, the familiar resolution of a piece is what stays most readily tied to memory, but the build-up to it releases dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is extremely addicting as it directly contributes to a human’s feeling of pleasurable reward.
In short, that build-up gives you a great feeling, and everyone likes to feel good. Not unexpected, we tend to make whatever song produces this feeling our “favorite song”.
As we can see, exactly how our favorite song receives that high honor isn’t a simple process. There are many variables that work together to order our preferences in music. At least now we are beginning to understand how our brain creates that order. This information can be quite useful!
I hope you’ve enjoyed the article! As always, my goal is to inform, illuminate, and inspire. If you liked it, please feel free to share with your friends and on social media. Have a great day!
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