Why does certain music sound better than others?

To begin to understand why we find some music more appealing than others, we must first understand why anybody finds any music appealing in the first place.

Neurologically, our brains are hardwired to pick up on patterns and predict how they continue, and the melodic, and sometimes vocal, patterns represented in almost all of music fit this description. In addition, our brains analyse whether the predictions of these patterns are positcive or negative, and that makes us feel certain emotion.

So good music stimulates our brains into predicting a positive outcome for the sequence it’s analysing. But why does some music provoke a stronger positive reaction than others, and how does ‘bad music’ manage to create a negative prediction?

Certain music is going to sound better and evoke a more positive reaction not for a neurological reason, but because there is a positive emotional event in your life that you now associate with that song. For example, it is highly likely the song played at your wedding will be one of your favourite songs for life, because the emotional event you have tied to that particular string of patterns you heard at the same time was overwhelmingly positive.

A study in Germany showed people enjoy music more when there is an unexpected twist, a different chord played instead of the one they were expecting. Good music is often praised for its storytelling and surprise, and many universally loved tracks will feature some instrumental variety and changes. Conversely, bad music is often slandered for its repetitiveness, as the pattern being played is easily predictable and the brain does not have to guess as to where it is going next, so it quickly dismisses it and loses interest.

This is not a complete description; there are many factors affecting how we each individually rate our subjective music interests. But the combination of neurological pattern recognition and emotional associations provide a reasonable explanation for our musical preferences.

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