'I unironically listened to the entire ten-hour version of the Nyan Cat theme'Rob Bulhman via Flickr (resized), CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

When I tell people that I unironically listened to the entire ten-hour version of the Nyan Cat theme last exam term, they are (understandably) baffled. On the flip side, I often struggle to understand the appeal of my brother’s London rap favourites. So, what is it that makes our music preferences so different? Whether it be a chart-topping fan favourite or an annoying internet earworm, music listening can be an incredibly powerful and personal experience. But what actually happens in our brains when we listen to music? And how might this help the stressed-out Cambridge student going into exam term?

“It’s easy for music to become intrinsically linked to memories”

It begins – as with many things – at birth or perhaps even before. Every piece of music we hear throughout childhood contributes to a mental musical map called a “tonal schema”. In Western cultures, this is confined to a 12-tone system comprising all the notes on a standard piano. It is this mental map that gives us the intrinsic knowledge of whether a note is “right” or “wrong” in a given context, regardless of our individual musical prowess. Like it or not, if your mum was a fan of those NOW That’s What I Call Music! CDs back in the day, those pop chord progressions and melodies may be ingrained into your musical perception even to this day.

“Even simply listening to music while walking to the library could be beneficial”

This metaphorical map is connected to several overlapping systems in the brain, including those that process memory, emotion and imagery. Neurological studies have shown how these regions of the brain are activated when we listen to music, demonstrating the positive effects that music can have on a variety of cognitive functions. For example, if you listen to a certain piece of music while revising, hearing that piece again may make the knowledge easier to recall since the music and memory are intertwined (this is my excuse for the Nyan Cat atrocity; it is the perfect nostalgic backdrop to frantic essay writing, I promise). A lot of music’s power comes from triggering the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, also known as the “feel-good hormone”, which is the same molecule released by addictive substances like cocaine. But between listening to music and snorting coke, music is probably the healthier option for managing stress.


Mountain View

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Yet the question remains: why do people enjoy different music? Often, it depends on your musical background. As mentioned earlier, it’s easy for music to become intrinsically linked to memories, even if you’re not aware of it. This implicit memory could mean a piece of music is tied to a certain person, experience or place in your mind. Upon listening to the piece, the cognitive response your brain had in that instance is replicated, potentially resulting in a higher dopamine release. Relatable lyrics produce this effect more tangibly if they emulate your own experiences (Charli XCX knows me so well. I do want to “hear those club classics when I go to the club”). Songs you have never encountered before may share elements with songs you already enjoy, whether that be similar instrumentation, intervals or rhythms. Conversely, music your brain has no associations for can be cognitively stimulating in itself, again triggering a dopamine release.

As we enter that all-important exam term, it is important to recognise the outlets that can provide some release – and music is a prime example of this. Indeed, music therapy has been on the rise since the (dare I mention it) COVID-19 pandemic and has proven to be a reliable tool in aiding people to recall memories and mediate their emotions. For the Cambridge academic, time to de-stress is a rare commodity. However, even simply listening to music while walking to the library could be beneficial. So, the next time you are stressed, pop on some headphones and get some music playing – your brain will thank you!