When people listen to the same passage of music, their brains appear to sync up and pulse together.
But only if they are all paying attention to the tune.
“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,” says the study’s lead author Jens Madsen, a researcher from the City College of New York.
Madsen and his colleagues wired up 20 volunteers with electrode caps to record their brainwaves, then played them eight 90-second snippets of classical music, each repeated three times.
While everyone’s brainwaves weren’t in perfect sync, the volunteers’ brain activity displayed strong similarities, the team found.
That’s not surprising, says the University of Sydney’s Professor David Alais, an expert in audio perception.
“You can put an electrode on the scalp, play music, and basically hear the music – from the electrode. Your brain is oscillating in time to the music, to the rhythm and beat and frequency.
“If that’s true, it’s not surprising that you could do this to 20 different subjects and show them all correlating.”
But the brains in Madsen’s study seemed to only get in sync when the listeners were actively engaged by the music.
When Madsen’s team distracted them – by having them count backwards by sevens – they tended to drop out of sync. That suggests paying attention to music is an important part of getting in sync with it.
And Madsen’s team also found that how familiar a piece of music was to listeners seems to influence their brains’ ability to sync up.
In their experiments, volunteers brains’ were more likely to sync up when listening to familiar music – suggesting they were more engaged with it, the team argues.
But the more they listened to it, the less in-sync they became, as though they were starting to get bored by it and lose focus.
This is something long known by commercial FM stations: humans like listening not to new music, but to the same music on repeat.
Scientists say our music preferences look like an inverted U: the more we hear a song, the more we like it, until we reach a peak, and then we rapidly start disliking it.
And the simpler the music, the faster we grow to hate it.
Liam is The Age and Sydney Morning Herald’s science reporter