Analysis: when it comes to our taste in music, the soundtrack of our lives is curated by neuroscience and environment

Most people have a favourite song, what's yours? If you think about it, there’s a good chance it transports you to a memory of a time and place, maybe a person in your life, or an experience from your past. Music probably also makes you feel good. But we don’t all like the same tunes. Whether it’s Bach or Beyoncé, experimental jazz or acid rock, what do we know about how our taste in music is shaped? The answer lies somewhere in our brains, our environment and culture.

We tend to be mad for nostalgia for a reason. Hearing the opening bars of a theme tune from your childhood is like instant time-travel. Whether it’s the opening bars of M*A*S*H or The Rembrandts’ I’ll Be There for You might give away when you were going through your formative years. Chances are, your parents put your through car journeys full of music from their own halcyon days.

"Music is the soundtrack of our lives," says Dr Catherine Jordan, Senior Atlantic fellow at the Global Brain Health Institute, TCD. Listening to music elicits a surge of dopamine, the feel-good hormone that we have in the brain, and makes several parts of the brain light up. "It’s a really complex thing. Neuroscientists for a long time have been fascinated by the effect music can have on the brain."

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Our environment and exposure is the earliest influence when it comes to shaping our taste in music, says musicologist Anika Babel, PhD researcher in UCD's School of Music. "Naturally your parents would be the first arbiters of taste, but adolescence is where a lot of the research lies, because that's when we start to form our own identities and break away. It's kind of like nature versus nurture, you start to nurture your own taste."

Research around this area was really big in the 90s and early 00s, says Babel. "It mostly comes from the field of popular music studies because that's the music teens engaged with. It's perpetuated in every teen film you ever see; there’s the heavy metal crowd or the cheerleaders who listen to Britney Spears or bubble pop style. [Music] helps socially for teenagers to navigate their world."

Identity

We use music to show the world who we are but also who we want to be. "Music as a social navigation tool is quite interesting. It helps you find your people and also assert yourself and how you want to be seen by others. It’s this idea of music as a badge, that you can display it in your style and your fashion."

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"There's a real claim to music, as something that belongs to us — "my favourite song", or memories of our song as a couple," says Babel. "It’s hard to separate music as a thing on its own, because it's so embedded in culture and it intertwines with practically every facet of culture. Encounters with music in radio, ads, TV or films — I believe that's one of the most powerful ways that our tastes and impressions [are shaped], of not only the music we like but the music we don't give too much thought to as "our own"."

It's our song

It's not only our personality, environment or what we're exposed to that shape our taste in music, we also form deeply embedded memories associated with music, says Jordan. "There's this concept called Music-Evoked Autobiographical Memories (MEAMs). Between the ages of 10 to 30 years of age is our most critical period for forming these autobiographical memories and music evoked autobiographical memories."

This points to a connection between music and our formative years where we experience a lot of the "firsts" that go on to shape us. "Often people have songs that trigger these really important milestones in their lives. For example the song that's played at the first dance of someone's wedding, whenever they hear that song they're immediately brought back to that moment. The idea with MEAMs, is that it triggers these deeply embedded autobiographical memories and someone experiences a flashback to that specific moment in time and music's pretty unique in that way, that it can create this flashback effect for people."

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Anecdotal evidence and a growing body of research has shown that people living with dementia, even in the late, severe stages, still respond to music despite the cognitive decline. "They might not be able to recognise their loved one, they may be experiencing some behavioural and psychological symptoms, they may be struggling verbally, they may be inert, they may be sitting in a care home, but they can still respond to music."

"What we think is happening, is someone in the late stage of dementia retains that capacity, because one of the last parts of the brain affected by dementia is the part that's responsible for MEAMs. They might not remember their son or daughter but hearing that piece of music seems to bring them back in that moment, right to that point in their lives. It's really, really powerful," says Jordan. Research is now aiming to develop treatments for dementia using MEAMs.

When it comes to taste, "it comes back to nature versus nurture. I think it's a mixture, I think culture plays a role, personality plays a role and our people, our peer group, our families, the experiences that we have," says Jordan. "So many different factors can really influence our taste for music."


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ