Maybe it’s by the Beatles. Maybe it’s by Bieber. Maybe it’s by a local reggae band you listened to on your honeymoon in Jamaica. Whatever your favorite song, it only takes about a second for you to hear that first chord. Then, you’re immediately reaching for the dial to turn it up as loud as possible. Yet, while you know that your top jam gives you all the feels, did you also know that it elicits a specific chemical reaction in your brain? That could be why you find your feet dancing along by the pedal and your fingers playing dashboard guitar every time “Sweet Child of Mine” wafts through the radio waves.
A recent study found that our brains all react the same when our personal favorite song comes on. During the study, researchers monitored reactions as participants listened to a playlist of music that spanned myriad musical genres from soundtracks and stock music to big band tunes and old-time jazz. Buried within there was the song they had selected as their all-time favorite. Interestingly, the participants’ tastes were wildly varied. Some preferred the Notorious B.I.G. Some loved the Goo Goo Dolls. Some even listed a tune by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the top of their list. Still, what happened when those tunes came on?
The Science of the Listening Process
When participants heard the songs that were not their favorite, referred to within the study as the “control songs,” their brain waves were busy with activity. Specifically, there were connections formed between the hippocampus and the auditory cortex. The hippocampus is the area in our brain that is largely responsible for helping us create and form memories. Thus, when we listen to songs that aren’t necessarily our favorites, we’re remembering them for the first time. We are, in effect, making new memories around them.
When the participants heard their favorite songs, however, those busy connections disappeared. The scientists involved in the study concluded that this occurred because we already have memories associated with those particular songs. In other words, we don’t need to create new memories because those listening connections are already strong. We hear “Jack and Diane” and we’re thinking about high school prom. We hear “I Gotta Feeling” and we remember the summer of 2009. We hear “His Eye is On the Sparrow” and suddenly we’re back in church, the sunlight pouring in through the stained glass.
While the memory-making portion of our brains goes relatively silent, the rest of it is lighting up when our favorite jam comes on. In fact, researchers found a high level of activity in what’s known as our “default mode network.” As this isn’t an area of the brain studied extensively by anyone not in this field, the team explained it as a “toggle switch” that turns our outward focus into an internal examination. In essence, when we hear a song we love, we switch back and forth between observing our external world and reflecting on our own sense of self.
The bottom line? Music catalyzes self-awareness. It’s what transports us from a busy, chaotic, smart device-obsessed world into a realm of observation, spiritual awareness and introspection. This could be why music therapy is such a powerful tool in treating afflictions from autism to Alzheimer’s. It’s also why you find yourself sobbing when that Whitney song comes on, pulling your children close when you hear “Return to Pooh Corner” and spinning around in the kitchen when they play “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On.” A great song lights up something within us and helps us remember who we are, and what we love.