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: 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.

America’s education system is centuries old. Can we build something better?

The Lumina Foundation lays out steps for increasing access to quality post-secondary education credentials.

Sponsored by Lumina Foundation
  • America's post-high school education landscape was not created with the modern student in mind. Today, clear and flexible pathways are necessary to help individuals access education that can help them lead a better life.
  • Elizabeth Garlow explains the Lumina Foundation's strategy to create a post-secondary education system that works for all students. This includes credential recognition, affordability, a more competency-based system, and quality assurance.
  • Systemic historic factors have contributed to inequality in the education system. Lumina aims to close those gaps in educational attainment.
  • In 2019, Lumina Foundation and Big Think teamed up to create the Lumina Prize, a search to find the most innovative and scalable ideas in post-secondary education. You can see the winners of the Lumina Prize here – congratulations to PeerForward and Greater Commons!

First solar roadway in France turned out to be a 'total disaster'

French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.

Image source: Charly Triballeau / AFP / Getty Images
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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.