Sunday, October 25, 2009

Your brain on music (3) - Why do we like the music that we like?

A year after they are born, children recognize and prefer music they were exposed to in the womb. Young children start to show a preference for the music of their culture by age two. As they mature, children start to tire of easily predictable music and search for music that holds more challenge. The teen years are the turning point for musical preferences. Many sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease, despite profound memory loss, can still remember songs from their teenage years. Most people form their taste of music by the age of eighteen or twenty.

Our brain undergoes a period of rapid neural development after birth, continuing for the first years of life. During this time, new neural connections are forming more rapidly than any other time in our lives. During our mid-childhood years, the brain starts to prune these connections, retaining only the most important and most often used ones. This becomes the basis for our understanding of music, and ultimately the basis of what we like in music.

Part of the reason we remember songs from our teenage years is because these years were times of self-discovery, and as a consequence, they were emotionally charged. We tend to remember things that have an emotional component because our amygdala and neurotransmitters act in concert to tag the memories as something important. There does not seem to be a cutoff point fo acquiring new tastes in music. But most people have formed their tastes by the age of 18 or 20.

What is true with music is probably also true with most other aspects in life. That’s why we encourage students to study topics that they enjoy. They tend to be better at such topics, willing to put more efforts into them, and more efficient in learning them.

We also find that 18-20 tend to be a very indicative age for students, in terms of study habits, preferences, and attitudes. For example, a student who is a procrastinator when he is 20 is very unlikely to change.

{They were performing Pingtan (評彈) in a Suzhou (蘇州) teahouse, back in 2006. It is a kind of storytelling and singing accompanied by music. I couldn't quite understand what they said (in the Suzhou dialect) but loved the sound and the rhythm, when I heard it the first time in 2006. Now I know why I did.}

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