Why Criticizing Music Makes Us So Mad

Our brains are hardwired to care a lot about music.

By Scott MorganJuly 31, 2017 9:30 am, ,

From KETR:

Life only has three guarantees: death, taxes, and the rage borne of someone saying the music you like sucks.

“It can kind of bring an otherwise enjoyable conversation to a real sudden halt,” says Dr. Robert Woody, a music professor and music psychologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.” Perhaps music should be added to the list of not talking about religion and politics.”

If that sounds like an irrational idea, try to keep in mind that no one has ever seriously confused human beings with rational creatures. Nevertheless, Woody says he is happy to embrace our irrational, emotional love of music as just part of the magic that is being human.

But that alone doesn’t answer a most vexing underlying question –why do people get so upset when you don’t like the music they listen to? Part of the answer, says Dr. Woody, is biological.

“Most all people are hardwired to be musical,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that everybody can become Mozart or Dave Matthews or anything like that, but I think all people are basically equipped to be musical.”

Hard science backs this up. Consider a particular video on YouTube by the Brain Music Project that shows what happens when a piece of music is played during an MRI scan of the brain. You can, in real time, watch otherwise off-the-shelf gray matter turn into a colored light show as different areas of the brain fire up in response to musical notes.

This kind of process starts in utero, where our developing brains wire themselves to respond to patterns, like rhythms.  Recognizing patterns – and when they break – is a vital survival tactic, but it also helps explain our innate musicality. Patterns and rhythms, after all, pacify the brain. Familiarity and consistency are comforting from the beginning.

Dr. David Scott, head of the Department of Music and Professor of Music at Texas A&M University-Commerce, says this is also cultural.

“Music is used from the very earliest times in our own lives,: Scott says. “Lullabies, using melodies to teach alphabets, don’t cross the street when you’re not supposed to, and other sorts of things. It is an innate part of every culture. “

This ingrained biological bent towards music and our cultural use of it from nascence creates an intensely emotional bond, Dr. Scott says. And it’s no surprise that once we start talking about intense emotional bonds, rational, level-headed discussions about musical tastes go out the proverbial window.

Pete Maloney was a professional drummer for 30 years. He was the bandleader for Dancing with the Stars and toured for much of the past two decades with the bands Dishwalla and Tonic. From the side that’s making the music, he’s found that the root of peoples’ defensiveness about their playlists has a lot to do with intense emotional bonds’ most visceral expression: ego.

“It’s almost like an insecurity thing,” Maloney says. “People take is an attack in some sort of personal way. 

Research backs this up too.

“We use music as what sociologists would call a ‘badge of identity,’” Woody says. “The music we listen to is a symbol by which we broadcast to others and by which we tell ourselves who we are. If you tell me you don’t like Dave Matthews Band music, it’s like you’re telling me you don’t like me. “

Moreover, Woody says, music becomes the story of us. Or, as he puts it, “sonic analogs to emotive life.”

None of this has  to make sense, intellectually. We are talking  about emotional attachment, after all.. And maybe a little irrationality is worth the tradeoff for a really slammin’ soundtrack to life.