Replay: The Effects of Familiar Music and Sound

Apr 01, 2019

This week has been a flash of changes for me. I’m still adjusting to the idea that I am not longer taking classes at my high school. I’ve spent the last five years building relationships with students and teachers. Not getting to see those people every day is, in a word, weird. I no longer hear the bustle of students in filled hallways. Instead, I hear coffee cups, phone conversations, and sound equipment. Perhaps there is a way to tie that feeling into this weeks theme: how humans interpret familiar sounds differently than unfamiliar sounds.
Based on my research, it seems like the brain processes sounds differently when it can recognize what is being played. Fortunately, I did a lot of this research before this week so that I could take time to meet everyone and adjust.

The first thing I found is that people seem to like sounds that they have heard before. An article, “Exposure Effects on Music Preference and Recognition,” cites three different studies where “Repetition of the studied melodies was found to increase liking,” even when the music was initially disliked or foreign, “the aesthetic effect is improved by hearing the music repeatedly” (884).
The word “Nostalgia” also seems to play a role in how people interpret familiar sounds, and it is deeply tied to the appeal of repeated music. Nostalgia was initially described as a disease. People afflicted with Nostalgia would be ‘haunted by ghosts’ when they were reminded of the past. According to the article, “When Nostalgia Was a Disease,” “The disease came to be associated with soldiers, particularly Swiss soldiers, who were reportedly so susceptible to nostalgia when they heard a particular Swiss milking song, Khue-Reyen, that its playing was punishable by death,” (Julie Beck). Thus, the word nostalgia has always been deeply associated with sound, music, and ghosts.

Notably, in Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, Mark Fisher comments on the dangers of nostalgia and the appeal of repeated music. Hauntology redefines the word ‘ghost’ to describe something that is not fully there. “Neither present nor absent… It has nothing to do with whether or not one believes in ghosts,” (Colin Davis 373–379). Fisher warns that nostalgia and the tendency to enjoy familiar music can lead to the repetition of old aesthetics, at least in mainstream culture. This makes it difficult for new kinds of music to reach a large audience, even in the digital age.

It seems like the film industry is cognizant of the effects of nostalgia too. Movies like Guardians of the Galaxy are opting to play popular tracks from the past, even when they clearly have the budget to make their own music. This decision enhances the film’s aesthetic because it transports the audience into 1970s, when the comic was popular. I’ll talk more about soundtrack strategies in film next week, when the topic shifts to motifs in music and sound.

I’m still getting used to my internship, which is filled with unfamiliar sounds and people, but this change is still incredibly exciting. I’m learning so much, and if this research teaches me anything, it’s that exposure leads to appeal. New experiences like these allow me appreciate more things about the world, and I get to enjoy things I never expected to learn to love.

2 Replies to “Replay: The Effects of Familiar Music and Sound”

  1. Ryah A. says:

    This sounds super interesting Cass!!! Would you say that classes that you have taken in high school, particularly Neuroscience, have helped you analyze the link between sounds and emotion such as nostalgia?

    1. Cass A. says:

      Absolutely! I first heard of the Mere Exposure Effect in psychology class with Ms. Das. I later realized that it applies to music specifically, impacting the way we consume it.

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