Sunday, 17 July 2016

What's in my Headphones No. 4: A Neuroscience Special.

My new Audiotechnica Headphones (gold cushion
is from Laura Ashley)
Here I am, back again, detailing what I have been listening in my headphones over the last couple of months whilst I walk through campus, stroll through London, research, and just generally going through life. Since outliving my matte black UrbanEars headphones, I am now enjoying music with my amazing audio-technica headphones! This is the fourth edition of the 'What's In My Headphones' blogpost series and it is good to welcome myself back to my blog by talking about this topic. All the ‘What’s In my Headphones’ blogposts can be found via the 'Music Appetite' tab in the navigation bar. 

It is amazing to see how much my music taste has changed since my early undergraduate days to where I am now – a PhD student. Each song reminds me of a certain time in my life, which is why music is more than just rhythm, beats, chords, and progressions to me – they are like memory banks. In previous blogposts, I shared music that I was listening to at the time but was not able to pinpoint why. Around half-way of a book I recently finished reading, “The Power of Habit” I now have a very satisfying response to my burning question “Why do I like particular songs and not others, despite their diverse genres?”. I am going to demonstrate this in this blogpost, and perhaps explain to you why some songs you listen to not only stick in your head, but also influence your overall music tastes forever.

But first, the brain! I have already spoken about this book in a previous blogpost, specifically how it made me realise how attending yoga classes indirectly affected how I research, relax, and how I work more smart. “The Power of Habit” is more than just a book that rigorously picks apart the neuroscientific research, reports, and breakthroughs that give us insight of how our brain works. How to form habits so autonomous that we would not question them, and furthermore how we could change our habits to suit our change in lifestyles.
Yes, you can completely tell this from the book title alone.
Yes, of course I am being sarcastic.

Although I kid, this book is incredibly insightful in learning about how that big muscle residing in each of our skulls, work. What makes this book worth reading is its ease in blending seemingly perplexing technical language with engaging creative anecdotes. Flowing anecdotes which are complimented with a warm, thrilling tone of writing. The use of helpful, charmingly drawn diagrams which not only break up the text but make the neuroscience lingo easier to grasp. Additionally, it explains how habits form not only looking at scientific research conducted in academia but also within business - how corporations such as Starbucks and Target can encourage new habits to form within customers to increase sales and customer loyalty. From the business executive to the curious learner in school, this book is a very great collection of exciting neuroscience that can impact how your live and do business more tactfully and efficiently.

My music tastes have evolved since being young, and the evolution still surprises me.

Relating to music, I got inspiration for this blogpost when I was reading part of the book where Arista Records are trying to get Outkast’s “Shake Like a Poloraid Picture” hit ‘Hey Ya!’ played on the radio. We all know how popular that song was at the time and how it is now pretty much considered a timeless classic now. Yet, when it was first given to radio DJs to play on-air it just was not ‘sticky’ enough – around 1/3 of radio listeners changed the station within the first 30s of the song and this occurred across America. According to the artificial intelligence music-analysis company Polyphonic HMI, ‘Hey Ya!’ scored one of the highest predictions of listener popularity and mathematical structure from its music algorithm. After more research from the most obscure of places – you are going to have to read the book to find out – a conclusion was reached. ‘Hey Ya!’ was not getting a negative listener response because it was a bad song, it was getting a negative response because it was an outcast among music currently being played on the radio. It was too different, an anomaly in people’s music memory banks. For that reason, it could not stick in people’s minds, resonate with people’s interest, and just sounded… wrong.

Now, this probably sounds like a complete contradiction to how the general public think of “Hey Ya!” today. You probably have ‘Shake it like a Polaroid Picture” playing in your head right now… or right now. How did Arista Records make this happen? As said in the ‘Power of Habit’, they had to “dress something new in old clothes… making the unfamiliar seem familiar”. How they did this relates to neurology.

Those who read my blog are aware that my original interest in Artificial Intelligence begun with a curiosity for Neuroscience. In my second year undergrad, I even took an optional module called ‘The Human Brain and Society’, a neuroscience module which explained how our neurology affects how we live daily and how it can make us appreciate and scientifically understand how mental conditions form. It even inspired one of my earlier blogposts on Autism Awareness Day. In the ‘Power of Habit’, it loosely explains why songs become ‘sticky’ by explaining the brain’s preference for familiarity. Apparently, scientists have been studying people’s brains whilst they listen to music (what a cool job) and noticed that the auditory cortex, thalamus, and superior parietal cortex regions are activated. You can learn more about these regions here, but if you study neuroscience to some extent you will probably not be surprised by this fact. These regions of the brain help distinguish patterns and attention. The fact that these brain regions are activated whilst listening to music imply that the brain is working out which parts of the music to pay attention to and which tones/pitches/melodies/beats sound familiar enough to make a decision on whether we like the music or not. Essentially, trying to get remove which parts of the music is equivalent to white noise – irrelevant. The brain wants to skip to the good bit: the auditory patterns. This key factor, music’s auditory patterns, explain why songs you have not heard before sound great to you and why songs you would rather let your ears bleed than listen to it any longer still replay in your head. Like the book says, these ‘songs correspond perfectly to your habits’. This forms a ‘familiarity loop’ :
1) Cue: Listen to song;
2) Routine: Sing along to song thinking ‘This is like songs I am already familiar with.’;
3) Reward: the feeling of ‘It is fun to hum along to!’

The 3 R's of Habit
Now, taking this concept within the book further and linking back to what this blogpost is originally about (music that I have been listening to), auditory patterns explain why a hypothetical person who predominately listens to Guns and Roses will unlikely bob their head to Tu Pac. If they listen to Guns and Roses and they like it, as we have learned thus far it is probably because their brain likes the sounds of the heavy drums, the snares, the guitar riffs, and vibrato of the classically rock vocals because they offer familiarity somewhat. Although rap and R‘n’B also feature guitars and heavy drums sometimes, unless you come across a song that has some familiarity with a Gun and Roses song it will likely not stick. However, if growing up you listened to a variety of genres or a band that was inspired by a collection of genres then you may find that your music tastes today are incredibly diverse, or you may find it easier to gain enjoyment from a variety of different music bands and artists. This brings me back to my original point of my blogpost!

An experiment: which I have never done on this blog before. By tracing back to my original music tastes I am going to see if I could change yours by making your brain notice auditory patterns between songs. From this experiment, you will gain a greater understanding of why my music tastes is developing but perhaps you may also have your music preferences broadened… forever!

For this experiment to begin, you have to learn a little bit about my music tastes and listen to them (this may bring back memories to some readers). As a teenager, I listened to completely different music to what I listen to now. To summarise my teenage years into a collection of bands and artists they would be KEANE, Tokyo Police Club, The Like, The Cribs, Norah Jones, Kings of Convenience, Paramore, Enter ShikariDeaftones, Iron Maiden, Taking Back SundayGoodbooks, Two Door Cinema Club, Bombay Bicycle Club, Foals, and Friendly Fires. I have given links to typical songs from these bands. When I was growing up, my Mum used to play songs by The PolicePaul Simon, and Sting. With numerous listens over the years and heart-pumping appreciation for the lyrics, The Police has become my favourite band of all time. Sting is one of my favourite artists of all time, and this fact even helped me form a bond with my friend and flatmate (his Dad once worked for/with Sting). In addition to this, back in the 90s when my parents used to hold parties with my aunts and uncles (no children allowed) they used to play music by Chaka Khan, Bel Biv DeVoeNew Edition, Boys II Men, Ashord& Simpson,Womack & Womack, Anita Baker, Earth, Wind & FireSade, Bill Whithers … all the 80s/90s classic hits which I think have influenced my music tastes today. Growing up, I used to listen to Oasis. The first song I ever learnt the words to was ‘Wonderwall’. My parents did not know how, apparently just one day I started singing the song in the back car seat as if I was in a musical. 

Taking my music history, the neuroscience behind ‘sticky songs’, and my music tastes throughout the years shown in previous blogposts, we can begin the experiment! How exciting.

Let us start with where it all began, music by The Police. Listening to this will help tune your brain to the songs that will be introduced after, like it did for me.

       The Police - Bring On The Night

The Police is a mixture of genres – reggae, funk, rock, jazz, electronic – which has formed a musical tree where all other songs and bands I like growing up have form branches and leaves from. We are going to skip to a few months ago when I heard music from a band called The Internet. A genre which we can describe as Neo-soul, or New Age Hip Hop. Elements of their sound can be traced back to the funk that is in music by The Police, whilst also familiar to the melodies and chords of N.E.R.D who I used to listen to. Also, my brain may also find satisfaction with the thought that the singer’s voice is like the female-version of Pharrell Williams.

The Internet:
The Internet - Dontcha

The Internet’s Ego Death album opened a bolted door of music which I once forgotten about. It reminded me of the music my parents used to play at their house parties, the memories of me sneaking down the steps and peeking through the stair railings to watch the house parties that I did not get an invitation too, the feelings of my ears being delighted by the sounds of beats and laughter. It started with The Police with their reggae, the funk, rock, and jazz influences combined with my inherent appreciation for 80s and 90s soul and jazz which has led me onto my music tastes as of March 2016 up to now.

Here are a collection of some music I am listening to right now:

 QSTN – Easy

  Spzrtk & Sango – How Do You Love Me

 James Blake - Modern Soul

Between all of them, my brain is picking up a familiar pattern between them that make them stick to me. I think all of them stem back to The Police, Sting, Paul Simon, and all the 80s soul, R'n'B, and Hip Hop, from my parent's influence and my days as a child listening to Oasis. Perhaps it is beats, the use of instruments, the similar progression? All I know is that they all stem back to music far back into my history. When you listen through the songs on your phone, iPod, mp3 player, cassette, or stereoplayer (I do not judge) perhaps you will listen to them a bit more deeply whilst appreciating that amazing 'muscle' that we call "brain".

Now, I promise, onto the experiment. Well, actually, we already started. The first song you listened to in this blogpost to all the ones you have listened to up to now has prepared you for this very moment. If you have not listen to all of them, over 50% should suffice, do so in order to see if this last part of the experiment works for you. If we can potentially open a currently bolted door of music tastes in your mind. Let’s get started.

Firstly, we need to give your brain an instrumental to get used to the beats, chords, pitches, and structure. We are going to do this twice, and build on it with use of lyrics.
I am going to start with one of my favourite beats by one of my favourite rising artists and producers - Tom Misch. So I do into throw you into the deep end (your music tastes may be too different and hence you may be not receptive) I am going to loosen your music tastes up by getting you used to Tom’s sound first. We need one that is a mixture of instrumental, singing, with a sprinkle of jazz, funk, RnB, electronics, and mellow vibes. His track ‘Dusty memories’ should do the trick, and quite fitting for what I am doing actually.

Tom Misch – Dusty Memories

Now onto the music reprogrammi– I MEAN experiment!

The first instrumental, Tom Misch’s ‘Dawsons Heights’:

Tom Misch – Dawsons Heights

Now that your brain has observed the auditory patterns in the song, it will more likely appreciate this song compared to if you listened to it before the instrumental.

 Tom Misch  feat. Zak Abel – Beautiful Escape

Did it make a difference? Did you find yourself bobbing to the song, or it sticking in your head? Let’s try the same concept again but this time with music that probably inspired Tom Misch’s music. Now, there is a reason why J Dilla is considered one the best and famous music producers of all time. He died before his time. He grew up listening to classical music, played classical music, but ended up finding his niche in producing soul resonating hip hop and RnB beats. His music has changed the sound of the genre up to present day. He musical talents has even been appreciated by classical musicians and his beats are sill appreciated today by people who still love his work. Now, I am going to present an instrumental by J Dilla – one of his classically famous ones.

J Dilla – Dreamy

This is very chilled, yet almost very playful. The high melodic notes with the smooth, low-tempo rhythm almost makes the song sound like a lullaby. This song is essentially a loop of a few beats, but they flow into each other. You cannot tell where one begins and where one ends. It is a fluid, lucid, cyclic music journey that gently makes you bob and float into silence. Great to work to, and revise to – from experience.

With you brain being seasoned with this instrumental, and the Tom Misch beats, we can offer the last stage of the experiment. I am now going to supply a version of this song with the Dreamy instrumental as its baseline. D’Angelo’s – Those Dreaming Eyes (Jay Dee Remix) [watch here] shall do this beautifully as it has lyrics, extra beats, and a heavier snare and guitar base. 

See! Now, hopefully this monster blogpost has not only shared what music has been playing in my headphones by the neuroscience behind why. Also, to any readers reading this blogpost who following it song-by-song, and took part in my experiment, you may have a better insight on how songs stick to you because of the importance of familiarity and auditory patterns between songs.

I find this so incredibly interesting because who knew that what music your parents or guardians were playing in the car whilst you were in the womb, or what music was played whilst you were rocked to sleep, or even what music was subtly playing in the background during your childhood birthdays would affect the music you like listening to in your headphones?! Ah neuroscience. This. Is. Why. You. Are. So. Great. Who knew that habits could be so interesting, and even affect our music tastes? As seen in previous blogposts of this series, my music tastes span from jazz, beats, indie, electronics, rock, but it is all about the craftmanship and vibes I can detect if anything else. My next blogpost of this series may feature music which is completely different to what is on this one, which is the beauty of music evolution and self-development, or somethinglikethat. ;) It is likely that habits and the quest for familiarity affect the type of food we like, the clothes we wear, and perhaps the people we date. However, by changing the ‘routine’ we could re-wire our brain … manually. 

Take Courage,

PS - 9 Month PhD viva is done (wooo), soon going to upload tech start-up trips, architecture photography, my attendance to the US Ambassador's 4th of July party and more!

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