Music of Music and the Brain

I’m just finishing teaching another Summer Edition (tm) of my Music and the Brain course, and in an fit of raw grading-aversion and sentimentality needed to compile the music we listened to together into a few playlists.

Music of Music and the Brain

For some reason every Music & whatever-object-of-psychology-or-neuroscience course needs to only use the classical canon and a healthy dose of dad rock as examples. Probably because they are mostly taught by dads. That’s a shame because if anyone purports to teach some universal principles of “music” and “the brain” but only uses a tiny sliver of the world’s music it seems somewhat inevitable that they’ll be backed into a corner clutching the particularities of that sliver close to your chest as if it contained all the world’s hidden musical universals.

That, and it’s more fun for everyone to listen to music that … they actually listen to.

I’m in the process of remaking the course materials into a website, so when I do that (and actually finish grading the course) I’ll describe how I use each of these tracks.

Hip-Hop of Music and the Brain

The next three playlists are all from my student’s problem sets.

Science and Academia is essentially allergic to hip-hop, so one feature of this course is that it has 100% more hip-hop listening and instruction than is usual. These songs come from a problem set where I asked them to get deep into the rhyme structure of a verse to learn about speech perception/production and auditory working memory

Buildups and Drops of Music and the Brain

This playlist comes from a problem set that teaches about midbrain dopaminergic reward-prediction error signaling and its purported role in musical expectation and pleasure. I asked my students to pick a song with a satisfying (or unsatisfying) buildup and describe how specific moments would translate into an RPE signal and dopamine release (or suppression). Some of these songs are real bangers which made it pretty tricky to stay focused on grading…

Feelings of Music and the Brain

My student’s answers to this problem melted my heart for good. I asked them to describe a song that has affected them emotionally – I hoped that leaving it open ended would give them a chance to reflect on the subtlety and intensity of musical emotions, and how our current understanding of the neurophysiology of music doesn’t really come close to explaining it.

I also had no idea that they would be so affected by video game music - I don’t remember it being that good when I played video games - but I guess it’s really matured as an art form, go figure.

A few quotes that I thought were very sweet (and not too personal):

Wicked - For Good

“When I was in high school in Indonesia, the final project for my English class was to create a drama/musical with my whole class. My class chose to reenact Wicked, but we changed a few things from the plot. Surprisingly, I was casted as Glinda and being a shy person, I was terrified, but I did it anyway. My friend who was casted as Elphaba sang “For Good” with me. When we had our final rehearsals, we were really emotional because I think we, as a class, just realized that this was our last project together, and so the song made a huge impact on us, emotionally. Now, when I listen to it, I feel nostalgic, happy, and sad at the same time. I’m happy that I went through hell with them with rehearsals and stuff, but I’m also sad that that time has passed. Everything was bittersweet.”

Talking Heads - This Must Be The Place

“This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) by Talking Heads is definitely one of my favorite songs of all time. For me, it encompasses so many different emotions and that’s what attracts me to it so much. The melody itself is something that gets better every time I listen to it, which is quite often, and David Byrne’s nonsensical lyric writing captures something very surreal about life yet also captures very tangible feelings for me. It is kind of a love song, but also a song about life and knowing David Byrne, you can’t really pinpoint anything that it could be about because he never wrote things for the purpose of being understood. This might be why I love it the most. I’ve experienced a lot in my life that has been both happy and sad at the same time, and trying to find the silver lining in everything has always been important to me. No matter what mood I’m in, this song always seems to speak to me and let me know that everything is happening how it is supposed to.”

Adele - Someone Like You

“This might be corny or basic, but a song that makes me unconditionally emotional is “Someone Like You” by Adele. The beat is so gentle in the beginning leading up to the chorus the song it starts to build. When you truly listen to the lyrics it’ll make you miss someone you don’t really want to miss. Or sometimes it reminds me of someone I used to be close to and have grown apart from. I mean Adele could sing about anything and it would probably make me feel some type of way.”

The Beatles - Hey Jude

“One piece of music that affects me emotionally is Hey Jude by the Beatles. When I was in 5th grade my mom told me she wanted me to perform in the talent show, so she hired a guitar teacher to teach me the song. After a few months of lessons, I learned the Beatles song and decided I was up to the challenge of performing in front of an audience. This performance did not go well, causing me to be very embarrassed. To this day, the song still brings back a sense of embarrassment every time I hear it.”

The Cinematic Orchestra - To Build A Home

“A piece of music that has affected me emotionally is To Build A Home by Cinematic Orchestra. The song is simple, with just a piano, strings, and a voice. It builds and swells beautifully and the lyrics are all about building a life with someone just for it to be taken away. The first time I heard this song was in an end-of-season marching band recap video, which my brother had made for my senior class, since we had all been in the program for more than 4 years. The combination of videos and photos of us and the music was overwhelming. Our director had also just quit at the end of our season, and we were pretty heartbroken seeing him for the last time in that video. The song is solemn and melancholy on it’s own as well, I believe it’s listed in the top 10 saddest lyrical songs on youtube.”

TwoThirds & Laura Brehm - Waking Dreams (Hellberg Remix)

“Although I generally don’t listen to this kind of music, this particular song has a lot of emotional weight for me, mostly in the form of nostalgia, and I suppose a small amount of “bittersweetness”. It was used for the intro of a YouTube channel that I watched a lot of during my 8th grade year and high school and listening to this song now brings me back to that time in my life, which was much simpler and also more hopeful overall. It was just a time in which a lot of things came together in my life, and I associate it with this song more than anything else.”

bad at programming and neuroscience in beautiful Oregon.