What Makes Music Enjoyable?

(Image credit: Karl-Erik Bennion)

What makes classical music universally regarded as more enjoyable than catchy, flavor-of-the-month pop songs? Recent evidence suggests that music that appears complex to the ears but can be easily deciphered by the brain many classical compositions, for example rate the most enjoyable.

A recent study published in BioMed Central's open-access journal, BMC Research Notes, suggests that people most appreciate a piece of music containing certain specific patterns that sound complex, but are actually easily simplified and stored by the brain . This "information compression," said study author Nicholas Hudson, a biologist at the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, is similar to how music compression software reduces the size of audio files by identifying patterns and removing unnecessary and redundant data.

Hudson used music compression programs to mimic how the brain condenses audio information to analyze a sampling of songs used by another research team in a 2009 study that measured how 26 subjects enjoyed various music genres , including classical, jazz, pop, folk, electronica, rock, punk, techno and tango. A sampling of Hudson's compression findings: The pop song "I Should Be So Lucky" by Kylie Minogue could only be compressed to 69.5 percent of its original file size; the techno piece "Theme from Bubbleman" by Andy Van compressed to 68.5 percent; Billy Idol's "White Wedding" compressed to 57.5 percent; and Beethoven's 3rd Symphony compressed to 40.6 percent of its original file size.

After comparing the compression rates to the 2009 enjoyment results, Hudson found that songs with the highest compression rates were also rated as the most enjoyable. Hudson theorizes that high compressibility elicits enjoyment because sophisticated music contains patterns that are not as readily apparent to the ears as they are in simple, catchy pop songs, and the brain has to work a little harder to crack their code.

But why would the brain get more enjoyment from a song that makes it work harder at compressing its musical information? The answer lies in how the mind likes to flex its muscle.

"It is an inescapable law of nature that the amount of satisfaction one gains from achieving something is related to how hard it is and easy things can only elicit a fleeting superficial sort of pleasure. The simplest tunes would be, say, ascending scales, which would quickly get irritating rather than be stimulating," Hudson said. "This applies to a lot of things, such as puzzles we enjoy doing, sports we enjoy playing, careers that stimulate us."

Music files of random white noise could only be compressed to 86 percent and were therefore impossible for the brain to substantially compress, according to the study. Like the "too easy" to compress sound files, the "too hard" to compress noise also had high ratings of causing indifference and boredom.

"If they were simple to the ear or too complex to the brain, then no 'compression progress' would be possible -- and it is the compression progress that helps elicit the sense of pleasure derived from understanding the piece," Hudson said.

So what makes certain songs and melodies, such as Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, more "timeless" and universally enjoyed than others isn't just their perceived beauty, but also their levels of compression. "I believe the theory applies equally to all musical genres, but that classical music has shown the compression quality to the greatest extent, based on my preliminary analyses," Hudson said.

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Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.