MOSI are running an experiment to try and work out what makes certain music so catchy using the power of neuroscience! Hooked On Music is a game anyone can get involved with to help scientists work out why some songs get stuck in our heads.
Erinma Ochu, citizen scientist-in-residence at MOSI, muses on the neuroscience behind the joys of listening to music:
“So, MOSI have launched a music experiment that people can get involved in to help scientists figure out what makes music memorable: www.hookedonmusic.org.uk. Played as a game over several rounds, players get to recognise songs by singing out loud (or in their head if they’re shy) and identify the catchiest bit in pop songs from the 50s to the 90s and the present day.
“I have played the game for a while, having been involved in developing the concept for a broader audience, and I have to admit, it’s a bit addictive. And it made me wonder, just what is going on in our heads as we listen to music, and in particular, songs that particularly resonate with us. As, it turns, out, I am not the only one to report on its addictiveness so, for MadLab folk, who like a bit of geek, I thought I’d investigate a bit further…
“Unsurprisingly, I am not the only one to have thought about this, and about ten years ago, neuroscientist, Robert Zatorre and his team, used brain imaging to show that when people listen to music that they describe as emotional, the brain areas associated with reward, motivation and emotion light up. And, more recently, Zatorre’s colleagues showed that when people experience a chill of pleasure listening to a peak emotional moment in a tune, the brain chemical, dopamine, is released, similar to when we anticipate food or sex. The researchers conclude, that this demonstrates why music is so highly valued by humans. In a nutshell, it makes you feel good.
“Whilst there are no studies anticipating how #hookedonmusic might make you feel when you play it, you perhaps wouldn’t anticipate the most effective way to find out, is to play the game en masse and then take a close look into players’ eyes. Apparently, scientists can now look into the retina, and correlate changes in dopamine levels in the brain with changes in the retina using a technique a lot cheaper than a brain scan, called electroretinography. These kinds of studies could have implications for understanding addictive behaviour.
“If that all sounds a bit whacky, some scientists at the Cross modal lab at The University of Oxford have combined experiments involving, food and sound, to see what happens when different types of sound are played when eating. Experiments were taken out of the lab and tested in a restaurant setting to explore the likes of a ‘sonic cake pop’ of chocolate coated toffee, which was served with a phone line. The diner would hear an instructor on the other end of the line tell them to listen to a sound played down the phone as they ate the cake and then report their experience. The cake tasted different depending on whether they listened to a high or a low pitch.
“Indeed, my brother, who is a DJ, and occasionally programmes tunes for a restaurant told me, it’s completely different playing in a club versus playing in a restaurant, as you are competing with the food, and can mess with the flavours. Messing with the flavours, as you can imagine, is very bad for business.
“Which, brings us neatly backed to #hookedonmusic, an experiment which is all about unlocking the secret science of song, or articulating the implicit knowledge known to music connoisseurs, DJs and songwriters the world over. With a better understanding of musical memory and how songs get caught in our heads (often without realising it) scientists might provide insights for future research into people with failing memory, and specifically dementia, when long term memory is lost.
“So there’s a fun side and a serious side. Indeed on the fun side, talking of all things sonic, one of the things we did early on at MOSI, was to ask people what their catchiest tunes were, and a few times people mentioned theme music from games and cartoons. For me Sonic the hedgehog, features high on that list – hours of my youth chasing gold rings only to drop them when I bumped into a crab! For those that worry that time spent playing games is wasted, citizen science games, are a great way to have fun and help science.
“To find out more, play the game and come and see the show at MOSI on 21st June.
“And, to create your own musical memory experiences by hosting a DIY #hookedonmusic event, get in touch with Manchester Science Festival. If there’s ‘sonic pop cake’, I’m definitely coming!”
About the author
Erinma (@erinmaochu) is a neuroscientist by background and currently a Wellcome Trust Engagement fellow, based in Life Sciences at The University of Manchester.
Music and emotion – http://www.zlab.mcgill.ca/emotion/ discover the tunes that give the most thrills
How sound affects taste: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2014/mar/11/ sound-affects-taste-food-sweet-bitter