Good music and a heart-warming song can touch your soul and take you on an extra-terrestrial and humbling journey. Some of these songs stay with you forever, bringing in a rush of nostalgia and memories, and some simply are too melodious to ignore.
We can all agree that all art, and specifically music, is very subjective and the tag of “best music” would vary from person to person. After all, there is a whole spectrum of people starting from those who listen to Chopin and Mozart all the way to the ones screaming their lungs out for the likes of Bieber and One Direction.
But can we use science to make a conclusive judgment on the best song ever? Gizmodo reached out to three neuroscientists and music enthusiasts to find out the process behind ‘liking’ a song and to pass a verdict on the ‘best song ever’.
Neuroscientist and Director of the Science Gallery at King’s College London
Is there a particular way to scientifically determine what makes a “good” song? Why or why not?
The best way to test a song is still a human. We can measure how people respond to songs in a bunch of ways including brain scans, measurement of chemicals in the the brain including dopamine (which is associated with the internal reward system, perhaps you give yourself a pat on the back for selecting a great playlist). Actually measuring foot tapping or the smile muscles is probably just as good as most ‘scientific methods.’
What chemicals are released in our brains when we hear good songs?
We still don’t have good models which enable us to describe what makes a good song. Deep learning networks may be able to develop an artificial ‘classifier’ that would learn what an individual likes and predict whether a new song would be a hit or a miss for that individual. But I’m not sure if that would be scientific, because in the end, even the people who build the network don’t know what lies beneath its decision.
Do certain musical genres affect people’s brains differently?
On genres, the interesting thing is that how you hear music is determined by your early life experience up to two years or for some musical elements up to six months. Beyond that age, your brain is kind of fixed for things like quarter tones or off-beats, so if you want your kid to dig a particular style, make sure they get exposed to it early.
Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of Psychology at New York University, researching the relationship between music and the brain
Why do some of us have negative reactions to certain songs?
There’s some interesting research that shows that people fall on a spectrum in terms of their “musical hedonism.” A small group have what you’d call musical anhedonia, so these are people that don’t like music at all. It’s not that they get a viscerally negative reaction, it’s just that they don’t really listen to it, they don’t really get music, they don’t really respond in a viscerally positive way to it.
Most people in the world do respond positively to music. There are people on the other end of the spectrum who are hyper-hedonic and really, really love music and get jazzed about it. Part of it is an individual difference or a personality trait of how much you respond to music. So that’s a big part of it: people who respond to music more overall, and then people who respond less to music no matter what it is.
Are there any intrinsic qualities that make a song “good”?
The challenge in psychology, but especially when we’re looking at music, is the fact that there’s individual differences. Taste is so varied in terms of music. In several studies about musical chills or really positive responses to music, they have the participants in the study bring in their own music to listen to. So you would have to have a comparison of highly pleasing music versus non-pleasing music. So, the highly pleasing music is totally different from one person to another.
My research tends to focus on the response to music rather than the particular qualities of it, since it’s so hard to pick a song that everyone across the board likes, unless you pick a group of participants that have very homogeneous taste which is also kind of challenging. If we knew what made the perfect song, someone would be making millions of dollars off it.
Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at New York University
What’s the frequency of a typical song?
There are some average-based methods to find out how fast music is, whether you like it or not. Let’s say you take a whole bunch of music—classical, rock, single instruments and ensembles—you can calculate the mean rate. On average, the rate music is played at because is about two hertz—two cycles per second—which translates into 120 beats per minute. Across musical styles and eras, there’s a typical “mean rate” of music, which is kind of surprising. It’s faster than the heartbeat and slower than speech.
Why are certain songs more catchy?
One of the hard things from a scientific point of view to figure out how taste works is to account for the huge range of taste across people and across, even your own age. Songs from puberty are particularly well-remembered for some reason—like the first time you fell in love, or something. But then, maybe in retrospect you think, “Wow, what the fuck, I liked Blondie?” It shows that even your own aesthetic experience changes pretty drastically over the course of your lifetime.
So from an individual point of view, what makes you happy, stimulated or excited changes even within you over time.
Verdict: The best song of all-time is “Africa” by Toto!
Actually, Toto turns out to be remarkably good and sophisticated according to musicians. Toto was a group of hardcore, highly respected studio musicians. They crafted those songs pretty carefully and were incredibly successful with those four albums. Musicians actually really love Toto.
Science says “Africa” is the best song ever made.