Why Is That Your Favorite Song?

Adam Butler/Flickr.Source: Adam Butler/Flickr.

We all have favorite songs. Some music sticks in our heads immediately and reverberates in our working memory for hours or days, but we don’t really like it. Effective advertising jingles fit this description. And then there are songs or music that you consciously return to again and again through your playlist or the ones that you immediately smile about when they spontaneously fill your environment. Why do we develop favorite songs? And why is it so individual and unpredictable which ones will stick with us, while others do not. Through the various phases of life we pick up new favorites and develop a musical curation of our own identity.

We know intuitively that music induces both an aesthetic response and an emotional response. We may find certain music beautiful, but that is insufficient for it to become a favorite. My son explains that his favorite song simply “makes me happy,” despite recognizing that the beat and lyrics are only average. Functional brain imaging research has shown that our brain picks up music and processes it in a variety of specific locations, each of which codes different aspects ranging from abstract sounds, rhythms, lyrics and language. These separate brain regions then send information to yet additional regions with different functions that form complex, interdependent associations that bring about both the aesthetic experience and the emotional result. One school of thought is that our favorite music is largely due to its emotional impact, such as the effect when we are at a live concert of our favorite group.

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The brain generates strong emotions from musical stimuli through activation of a neurologic circuit called the medial limbic system or the Papez circuit. It remains unclear whether a favorite song creates something new emotionally or simply triggers preexisting pathways. Another of my sons has paid attention to his emotional response to music and has curated a go-to playlist that he can source to augment, improve, or change his mood to suit whatever situation he is about to face. He relies on these favorite songs to handle the emotional demands of the teenage world. This conscious use of music to extract an emotional dividend can be employed to motivate us during exercise, to set the mood for a romantic dinner, to relax customers at a spa, to rally a crowd during a sporting event and more. These songs can become favorites as we seek to recreate that atmosphere later.

Another school of thought is that there are songs that become favorites not so much for the musical structure or lyrics that generate a specific emotion, but rather for what that song represents in our memory. Music is heard in unique contexts. There are several types of memory that utilize separate brain structures and pathways. Of the multiple forms of memory we encode, musical sound (along with visual stimuli) is recorded as perceptual memory while meaning is felt to be encoded by semantic memory (similar to our ability to recall poetry or other text). The limbic system generates emotion that becomes associated with the perceptual memory, episodic memory of events, and semantic memory. The brain therefore encodes music as a component of our multifaceted memory of a moment or experience.

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My husband’s favorite song is the Rolling Stones “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” He appreciates the ironical lyrics of Mick Jagger complaining that he is unfulfilled and involved in mundane activities such as going to the drugstore and getting a soda, despite being the preeminent rock star in the world when the song was recorded. Interestingly, my husband has a tremendous verbal memory, maintaining the lyrics of hundreds of classic rock songs in his working memory that he calls up for any and all occasions. He also associates this song and the Rolling Stones’ early albums generally with an epoch of his life in which he was increasingly socially aware and politically engaged. Many of us are inclined to favor the music of our youth. Our formative experiences when young had a soundtrack, which may explain the popularity of classic rock radio stations.

What is even more interesting though is that music actually appears to enhance overall memory. Research has shown that music is involved in forming memories, either about pieces of music or about episodes and information associated with particular music. The musical characteristic themselves, notably if it induces a positive emotion or demands increased attention enhances especially autobiographical memory. Memories with a musical soundtrack are potentially stronger and more emotionally positive than those without. These associated memories are also linked to an environmental switch that can be consciously or unconsciously turned on later.

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Autobiographical memory defines who we are. Hearing music from our past evokes a strong feeling of knowing which we often call nostalgia. A study by Janota examined memory and emotion when hearing popular songs from the past and found that most evoked positive forms of nostalgia. This type of autobiographical nostalgia reinforces our positive self-image and our sense of well-being. A friend of mine can identify particular songs that he associates with spending time with his closest friends when we were young and carefree. These songs define his lifelong friendships with us and reliably are a source of consolation and security.

The neuroscience underlying the intricate relationship between music and memory explains why artificial intelligence algorithms from Spotify, Pandora and other services cannot quite get it right about our music preferences. The algorithms model the users’ behavior picking playlists, but are only able to process the aesthetic components of selected music. The cognitive associations and memories connected to music are uniquely individual and not necessarily related to the aesthetic quality of the music. In other words, our taste in music does not necessarily define the songs we identify as favorites. Jimmy Iovine of Apple admitted as much when he promised that Apple’s curation service would match the song you hear to the mood and the moment. "Algorithms alone can’t do that emotional task. You need a human touch." Fortunately or unfortunately, even other humans cannot replicate our individual experience and autobiographical memory and we are left with discovering our favorites through chance, serendipity and luck.

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While it is interesting to know that there is a neurobiological basis for our identification of favorite music, research in this area is increasingly being conducted to define therapeutic and rehabilitative uses for music with patients with neurologic illnesses that impact memory including dementia, stroke, and traumatic brain injury. This is exciting work and an area to watch for new medical intervention that we might actually enjoy.