The science of music: Why your brain gets hooked on hit songs
There's a reason you can't stop you head boppin' to block-rockin' beats, and why you can't get a song's hook out of your head.
Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine, where he writes about economics and the media. He is a regular contributor to NPR's Here and Now and appears frequently on television, including CBS and MSNBC. He was named to both Inc. magazine's and Forbes's 30 Under 30 lists. He lives in New York City.
Derek Thompson: One of the questions that I set out to answer in the book is, why do we like what we like in music? What makes music catchy? Where do “earworms” come from?
And to answer this really complex question I started with the simplest possible question, which is: what is music? Why does the brain process some sounds as cacophony and other sounds very clearly as song?
And to start to answer this question you have to go to Diana Deutsch. And she is a musicologist at the University of California San Diego. And Diana was listening to herself talk at her house one evening, and she put a sentence of hers on repeat and she realized if you take a bit of speech stream and you take a sliver of it and you start repeating it again, start repeating it again, start repeating it again, start repeating it again, start repeat –obviously you can sort of hear it if you’re listening that the brain suddenly starts to hear a melody in this repetition, and a rhythm and a beat, and it starts to hear that which was formally just speech as song.
And so what she would say, what I would say, is that repetition is the God-particle of music, it is the thing that distinguishes the cacophony of the world from that which we cannot help but recognize as music.
So that’s interesting, but it’s not an answer to the fundamental question, which is: what makes music catchy? Because if I go into a music studio and I say, “start repeating it again, start repeating it again” I’ll be laughed out of the studio immediately. So there has to be a repetition and variety. What is the scientific way to think about the balance?
And to answer that question you have to fly northeast from San Diego to Ohio State University in Columbus Ohio, where David Huron did this famous study involving mice where he played a note for a mouse, let’s call it a B note. And the mouse would turn its head like this. And he would play B again, and the mouse would turn its head. And he would play B-B-B and the mouse’s head is just doing this thing.
And eventually the mouse habituates, it learns to ignore the stimulus. And habituation is common in culture and life. We learn to ignore things that are too familiar.
But if instead at the very moment the mouse is about to habituate from the B note he instead plays a C note, the mouse attends to the C note and is dishabituated from the B note. So now he can go back to scaring the mouse with the B note.
And it turns out that if you want to scare a mouse for the longest period of time with the fewest number of notes there’s a very specific pattern that you play, and it goes: B-B-C-B-C-D note to habituate from both from the B and the C note.
And as I was reading this study and talking to David I thought, well if you take the letter “B” and you replace it with the word “verse” and you take the letter “C” and you replace it with the word “chorus “and you take the letter “D” and you replace it with the word “bridge,” you have the following song structure: verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge, which is essentially the most common pop song structure of the 20th century.
So what seemed so fundamentally interesting to me about this idea is that this same formulaic relationship between repetition and variety that can scare a mouse in a laboratory setting also makes us attend to Top 40 radio in cars.
But throughout the book I’m constantly thinking about what are the most important implications of each of these ideas, not only for entertainment, which is interesting but maybe not important, but also for something like politics?
And it’s interesting when thinking about repetition and speech and persuasiveness, and realizing that every great rhetorical device is essentially a form of repetition.
There is anaphora, which is repetition at the beginning of a sentence. Winston Churchill, “We shall fight them in the landing fields, we shall fight them on the air.”
You have tricolon, which is repetition in triplicate. Abraham Lincoln, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” There is a lilt to repetition in human speech.
But most impressively and maybe most utilized is this thing called antimetabole. And that’s impossible to remember or spell or pronounce so think of antimetabole as A-B-B-A, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” A-B-B-A. “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” Or Hillary Clinton, “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights,” A-B-B-A, antimetabole.
And what I think is so interesting about antimetabole is that it is the most used rhetorical device I think, because it is just musical enough to disguise the fact that it is essentially song, that it is essentially turning human speech into that which the brain wants to process as fluent music.
And so sometimes we hear both great ideas and terrible ideas as antimetabole and the brain wants them to be true, and so we like them before we even know to think about them.
There's a reason you can't stop your head boppin' to block-rockin' beats, and why you can't get a catchy song's hook out of your head. The Atlantic editor Derek Thompson lays down a spoken-word jam about the science behind music's appeal. Derek Thompson's latest book is Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.
Nazi supporters held huge rallies and summer camps for kids throughout the United States in the 1930s.
- During the 1930s, thousands of Americans sympathized with the Nazis, holding huge rallies.
- The rallies were organized by the American German Bund, which wanted to spread Nazi ideology.
- Nazi supporters also organized summer camps for kids to teach them their values.
A Bund parade in New York, October 30, 1939.
Credit: Library of Congress
1930s AMERICAN FASCIST BUND CAMP HOME MOVIE BERGWALD NEW JERSEY<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="69d54b175b0d317cf9bfd688e4fa04f3"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/gOPeDaDcw3w?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Tea and coffee have known health benefits, but now we know they can work together.
Credit: NIKOLAY OSMACHKO from Pexels
- A new study finds drinking large amounts of coffee and tea lowers the risk of death in some adults by nearly two thirds.
- This is the first study to suggest the known benefits of these drinks are additive.
- The findings are great, but only directly apply to certain people.
Maybe you should enjoy this article with a cup of coffee or tea.<p> The <a href="https://drc.bmj.com/content/8/1/e001252?T=AU" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">study</a> involved 4,923 type 2 diabetics living in Japan. The average participant was 66 years old. All of the participants were taken from the rolls of the Fukuoka Diabetes Registry, a study geared at learning about the effects of new treatments and lifestyle changes on the health of diabetics. <br> <br> The participants filled out questionnaires concerning their health, diet, habits, and other factors. Among the questions were two focused on determining how much green tea or coffee, if any, the participants consumed over the course of a week. The health of the participants was recorded for five years. During this time, 309 of the test subjects died from a variety of causes. <br> <br> Subjects who drank more than one cup of tea or coffee per day demonstrated lower odds of dying than those who had none. Those who consumed the most tea and coffee, more than four and two cups a day, respectively, enjoyed the most significant reductions in their risk of death. This level of consumption was associated with a 40 percent lower risk of <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/10/201020190129.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">death</a>. </p><p>Most interestingly, the effects of drinking tea and coffee appear to combine to reduce risk even further. Those who reported drinking two or three cups of tea a day and two or more cups of coffee were 51 percent less likely to die during the study, while those who drank a whopping four or more cups of tea and two or more cups of coffee had a 63 percent lower risk of <a href="https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/diabetes-coffee-and-green-tea-might-reduce-death-risk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">death</a>. </p>
So, should I start swimming in a vat of coffee and green tea?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/LY0E-JQxeoY" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> Not quite. </p><p> The primary takeaway from this study is that Japanese adults with type 2 diabetes who drink a lot of green tea and/or coffee die less often than similar people who do not. If this effect is caused by something in the drink, lifestyle choices people who drink that much tea all make, or something else remains unknown. The finding must be considered an association at this point. <br> <br> The eye-popping reductions in mortality rates are compared to the risk of death of others in the study. The people who died reported drinking less tea and coffee than those who lived. Unless you have several demographic and conditional similarities to the subjects of this study, you probably won't suddenly be at a two-thirds lower risk of death than your peers because you drink green tea. </p><p> Like all studies that depend on self-reporting, it is also possible that people misstated how much they consumed any one item. The study also did not look into other factors like socioeconomic status or education level, also known to impact death rates and potentially linked to coffee and tea consumption. </p><p> However, it is yet another study in the pile that suggests that <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/top-13-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-coffee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">coffee</a> and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/top-10-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-green-tea" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">green tea</a> are good for you. That much is increasingly <a href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/health-benefits-linked-to-drinking-tea" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">agreed</a><a href="https://www.rush.edu/health-wellness/discover-health/health-benefits-coffee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> upon</a>. This study also suggests the benefits are additive, which is a new development.</p><p><br> So, while it isn't time to start the IV drip of green tea, a cup or two probably won't <a href="https://www.webmd.com/diabetes/news/20201022/coffee-green-tea-might-extend-life-for-folks-with-type-2-diabetes" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hurt</a>. </p>
Logic puzzles can teach reasoning in a fun way that doesn't feel like work.
- Logician Raymond Smullyan devised tons of logic puzzles, but one was declared by another philosopher to be the hardest of all time.
- The problem, also known as the Three Gods Problem, is solvable, even if it doesn't seem to be.
- It depends on using complex questions to assure that any answer given is useful.
The Three Gods Problem<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UyOGZk7WbIk" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> One of the more popular wordings of the problem, which MIT logic professor George Boolos <a href="https://www.readersdigest.ca/culture/hardest-logic-puzzle-ever/" target="_blank">said</a> was the hardest ever, is:<br> <br> "Three gods A, B, and C are called, in no particular order, True, False, and Random. True always speaks truly, False always speaks falsely, but whether Random speaks truly or falsely is a completely random matter. Your task is to determine the identities of A, B, and C by asking three yes-no questions; each question must be put to exactly one god. The gods understand English, but will answer all questions in their own language, in which the words for <em>yes</em> and <em>no</em> are <em>da</em> and <em>ja</em>, in some order. You do not know which word means which."<br> <br> Boolos adds that you are allowed to ask a particular god more than one question and that Random switches between answering as if they are a truth-teller or a liar, not merely between answering "da" and "ja." <br> <br> Give yourself a minute to ponder this; we'll look at a few answers below. Ready? Okay. <strong><br> <br></strong>George Boolos' <a href="https://www.pdcnet.org/8525737F00588A37/file/31B21D0580E8B125852577CA0060ABC9/$FILE/harvardreview_1996_0006_0001_0060_0063.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">solution</a> focuses on finding either True or False through complex questions. </p><p> In logic, there is a commonly used function often written as "iff," which means "if, and only if." It would be used to say something like "The sky is blue if and only if Des Moines is in Iowa." It is a powerful tool, as it gives a true statement only when both of its components are true or both are false. If one is true and the other is false, you have a false statement. </p><p> So, if you make a statement such as "the moon is made of Gorgonzola if, and only if, Rome is in Russia," then you have made a true statement, as both parts of it are false. The statement "The moon has no air if, and only if, Rome is in Italy," is also true, as both parts of it are true. However, "The moon is made of Gorgonzola if, and only if, Albany is the capitol of New York," is false, because one of the parts of that statement is true, and the other part is not (The fact that these items don't rely on each other is immaterial for now).</p><p> In this puzzle, iff can be used here to control for the unknown value of "da" and "ja." As the answers we get can be compared with what we know they would be if the parts of our question are all true, all false, or if they differ. </p><p> Boolos would have us begin by asking god A, "Does "da" mean yes if and only if you are True if and only if B is Random?" No matter what A says, the answer you get is extremely useful. As he explains: <br> </p><p> "If A is True or False and you get the answer da, then as we have seen, B is Random, and therefore C is either True or False; but if A is True or False and you get the answer ja, then B is not Random, therefore B is either True or False… if A is Random and you get the answer da, C is not Random (neither is B, but that's irrelevant), and therefore C is either True or False; and if A is Random...and you get the answer ja, B is not random (neither is C, irrelevantly), and therefore B is either True or False."<br> <br> No matter which god A is, an answer of "da" assures that C isn't Random, and a response of "ja" means the same for B. </p><p> From here, it is a simple matter of asking whichever one you know isn't Random questions to determine if they are telling the truth, and then one on who the last god is. Boolos suggests starting with "Does da mean yes if, and only if, Rome is in Italy?" Since one part of this is accurate, we know that True will say "da," and False will say "ja," if faced with this question. </p><p> After that, you can ask the same god something like, "Does da mean yes if, and only if, A is Random?" and know exactly who is who by how they answer and the process of elimination. </p><p> If you're confused about how this works, try going over it again slowly. Remember that the essential parts are knowing what the answer will be if two positives or two negatives always come out as a positive and that two of the gods can be relied on to act consistently. </p><p> Smullyan wrote several books with other logic puzzles in them. If you liked this one and would like to learn more about the philosophical issues they investigate, or perhaps if you'd like to try a few that are a little easier to solve, you should consider reading them. A few of his puzzles can be found with explanations in this <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/02/11/obituaries/smullyan-logic-puzzles.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">interactive</a>. </p>
But most city dwellers weren't seeing the science — they were seeing something out of Blade Runner.
On Sept. 9, many West Coast residents looked out their windows and witnessed a post-apocalyptic landscape: silhouetted cars, buildings and people bathed in an overpowering orange light that looked like a jacked-up sunset.