Sunday, December 24, 2017

"This is your brain on Christmas music"

From the College of William & Mary:
It starts with a small jump up, then back down, a major second followed by a major sixth. Sol - la - sol - mi, sol - la - sol - mi. Whether sung by Mariah Carey or Dean Martin, the four notes are instantly recognizable as the opening to “Silent Night.”
“You hear it in one key, you hear it in another key, you know it's the same melody -- just in different keys,” said Brian Rabinovitz. “That’s because you have a memory for that particular tonal structure. You are able to instantly recognize it, even if it’s in a key you've never heard before, sung by a singer you haven't heard before.”
Rabinovitz is a neuroscientist who focuses on how the brain processes music. He’s currently serving as a visiting lecturer in William & Mary’s Department of Psychological Sciences and will be teaching a course on musical cognition this spring.
His specialty is memory, what makes us remember songs and what makes some songs impossible to forget. Specifically, he studies how our brains get information from music, store that information and make sense of it.

“There are areas in the brain’s prefrontal cortex that are tracking melodic structures independently of individual notes,” Rabinovitz said. “Once a particular melodic structure is tracked, it can essentially be saved as a memory.”

When we hear a song for the first time, our brain searches an entire catalog of musical structures it’s been building ever since we first listened to music. The neuroscience behind enjoying that new music, Rabinovitz explained, is based on our catalog, whether we can predict patterns in the new music that align with musical structures we already have stored.

“Typically, the music that's very niche, that's less popular, is stuff that is really challenging and doesn’t give you those resolutions you expect,” Rabinovitz said. “Then you look at Christmas music, or almost any pop song, you get very clear resolution. It goes exactly where you expect.”

And the more that music is played, the more those expectations are enforced. It’s why popular music stations rotate through a series of top 40 hits. Why mainstream lyrics often contain only a few words. Why the same holiday classics inundate American airwaves each year. Anything that repeats a lot, Rabinovitz said, has a greater likelihood of making it into our musical structure memory bank....MORE
On to my favorite (no)volatility carol:

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!