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New music grabs attention by synchronising listeners’ brainwaves

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Unfamiliar music or new music tends to keep listener’s brains engaged and sustains the audience’s attention. Music tends to be highly repetitive, both in terms of musical structure and in terms of listening behaviour, yet little is known about how engagement changes with repeated exposure.

According to a new study recently published in Scientific Reports, music has the power to captivate an audience by synchronising their brainwaves. The researchers used electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure the synchronisation of brainwaves as an audience of musicians and non-musicians listened to familiar and unfamiliar excerpts of instrumental classical music.

Jens Madsen led this study along with senior author Lucas Parra of The City College of New York and conducted research in collaboration with Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis and Rhimmon Simchy-Gross from the University of Arkansas.

Music and brain engagement of listeners

One of the most notable takeaways of this research is that the repetition of overly familiar music appears to cause most listener’s brain engagement to decrease. On the flip side, new music could hold the listener’s attention better and increased their brain engagement, especially with those who had some musical training.

Interestingly, when members of the audience were all engaged by the same piece of music, their neural responses synchronised and their brains got on the same wavelength. “What is so cool about this, is that by measuring people’s brainwaves we can study how people feel about music and what makes it so special,” Madsen said in a statement.

In this study, inter-subject correlation increased when participants listened to music composed in a familiar style compared to music composed in an unfamiliar style. Prior experience with a style shapes listener expectations and provides an entry point for engagement even on the first hearing. Music written in a less familiar style cannot captivate attention as easily or uniformly.

Familiar music vs Unfamiliar/New music

Conceptualised in terms of the inverted U-shaped response prevalent in psycho-aesthetics, familiar music can come in closer to the peak on the first hearing. Unfamiliar/new music can require more exposure to engage listeners. Indeed, as participants listened and re-listened to music written in a familiar style, engagement decreased, but this drop did not occur for music written in an unfamiliar style.

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The authors sum up the significance of these findings in the paper’s conclusion: “This paper suggests a new methodology for tracking musical engagement via EEG. It also presents nonscientific evidence to bolster theories in psycho-aesthetics that arose in the 1970’s before it was possible to use techniques other than behavioural to investigate them. Future research could harness the potential of measuring ISC to reveal more about how music captivates the mind.”

 

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