A blog of music and the mind

Tag: Psychology in music

Paul Simon and the Power of Musical Repetition

Have you ever listened to a new piece of music that you’ve heard was “perfect” or an artist’s “masterpiece” and not actually liked it right away? Or, have you ever heard a new work by one of your favorite artists, still not loved it upon first or even second listen, but maybe warmed up to it later?

I have definitely been there, and I’ve noticed something interesting in maybe 90% of those cases: the frequency with which I listen to new music seems to correspond to how positively I feel about that music over time.

In my first post, “Why Do We Like the Music We Like?” I mentioned how early familiarity with certain genres of music helps to shape our musical preferences as adults. When I wrote that, I hadn’t thought of this side of that issue, the matter of liking music you once disliked.

One of my favorite YouTube channels is called Canadian Studmuffin, where Trenton, Ontario-based YouTuber Larry Graves reviews classic rock music and does comedy videos. Over the years, he has mentioned this matter every so often: the importance of giving yourself time to appreciate music that you don’t like at first.

So, all of this has got me thinking. I want to explore this subject and talk about the power of musical repetition, or how music can grow on us, given enough time and exposure to it. I’ll illustrate the matter using a perfect example from my own life: how dramatically my opinion has changed over the years on Paul Simon’s 1990 worldbeat album The Rhythm of the Saints.

What Is the Mere-Exposure Effect?

German psychologist Gustav Fechner is believed to have been the first to study what is now called the mere-exposure effect, in 1876. The name of the concept describes it well: this is a phenomenon in which we enjoy and appreciate something the more familiar we are with it.

The effect is also called the familiarity principle, and it can apply not only to our music preferences, but also to love, attraction, and advertising.

Think about your workplace, as an example. You get a new job, and everyone is a stranger at first. But that isn’t the case after a few months or years. Some people become attracted to certain coworkers over time. Our familiarity with these people tends to breed that attraction. We know them. We know what to expect from them. We start liking them.

The mere-exposure effect happens all the time, including with people and music.

enjoying music

Paul Simon, the Mere-Exposure Effect, and Me

Paul Simon’s The Rhythm of the Saints really is the perfect example for me to use in describing the mere-exposure effect. In the decades after Simon and Garfunkel broke up in 1970, Paul took his solo career in some interesting and to-me unfamiliar directions.

Paul has always known how to make a hit. He did it multiple times over with Simon and Garfunkel and continued it with his solo work. This is why I enjoyed his 1970s records so much, and so easily.

Then, I started skipping around Paul Simon’s discography and landed on 1990’s The Rhythm of the Saints. On this album, Paul continued the tradition he had started with his 1986 record Graceland: that of recording worldbeat/pop music with musicians from other countries and cultures.

With Graceland, the focus had been South African music. On The Rhythm of the Saints, it was Afro-Brazilian and other Latin American influences, played with musicians from those cultures.

When I first heard The Rhythm of the Saints in 2012, I hadn’t yet heard Graceland, so I didn’t know what Paul had been up to at this point in his career.

My first listen to The Rhythm of the Saints was terrible. To my 21-year-old self, the album was slow and boring. For the most part, it had no recognizable melodies that I could recall after a listen. The songs meandered through their tunes with lots of strange percussion instruments that I identified as being from other cultures, but that I still didn’t like any more.

However, I stuck with it, and listened to The Rhythm of the Saints over and over again. I still hated it after several months. I chalked it up to one of those albums that maybe received some good reviews at the time, but that I would just never “get.”

Then, one day, with no prior warning, it clicked for me. I don’t remember much about where I was when this happened, or when it happened, except that it was quite some time later. That’s how unremarkably The Rhythm of the Saints slipped into my personal canon of favorite music. It seems I literally went from disliking it to liking it.

I think it’s important to repeat that I gave this album quite enough time to sink in. I probably listened to The Rhythm of the Saints between 15 and 20 times before I got it. And I didn’t attempt to “cram” in all those listens in a few weeks. I’m talking about years here.

Now, the Afro-Brazilian batucada music made sense in my mind. The heavy percussion of this samba-music subset gave me that driving rhythm feeling that I love in my tunes. The congas sounded cool, and the melodies were free to meander all they liked. Songs such as “She Moves On” and “The Coast” are relaxing and enjoyable now, whereas before, they were simply confounding.

Exposing myself to that music over time had indeed done its long work. I now appreciated how Paul Simon had combined Western pop music with Latin American musical styles to create a unique work of art.

The Power of Musical Repetition Can Open New Doors

Being unfamiliar with any form of Latin American music had prevented me from liking The Rhythm of the Saints initially. I gave it about 20 listens over several years, and now I’m enjoying the fruits of that labor.

This is how I think the mere-exposure effect can open all kinds of new musical doors for us if we allow it. There’s that level of music that each of us already knows we like. It’s probably music that’s familiar to us already in some form. But then there’s another level of music–the stuff that goes against our grain–that we can access if we’re just patient enough to let it work our minds.

For me, learning about the mere-exposure effect has at least given me the option of trying to like certain new music. If I really feel like I want to attempt that, then I now know what’s involved. And I think that can be fun.

Exploring Music and Emotions through Bob Dylan’s Work: Part 2

Bob Dylan is an elusive one. He has been in the public eye as a poet-musician since 1961, and yet he is still the subject of so many questions, speculations, and myths. Millions of words have been written about Dylan as a man, a writer, and an American cultural icon.

Dylan is a person who can be open and honest in an interview in one moment and then start spinning his typical Dylanesque misinformation in the next. He is notoriously private and a master at deflecting questions he finds too probing. He can spin, avoid, and joke his way out of any verbal exchange.

As such, there isn’t a great wealth of information that one can learn from Dylan himself about his songs or the emotions he felt when he was writing and performing them. When questioned about even his barest and more vulnerable album–Blood on the Tracks (1975), in which he seems to confess all his feelings about the fading of his marriage–Dylan claimed he simply wanted to write songs in the style of Anton Chekhov’s short stories.

One responsible way to interpret the emotions Dylan intended to project in a given song is to perform close readings of the song lyrics. The words are there for all to see, so if we are going to study anything, that’s a good place to start. I think we can also learn a bit from Dylan’s delivery of those lyrics in the actual tracks.

I feel I can also offer insight into some Dylan songs with what I happen to know about the man’s personal life at the time of a given composition.

The component of this endeavor that I will find the most interesting is when I attempt to convey the emotions I experience when I hear certain Dylan songs, and whether I think my emotional responses match what Dylan was feeling.

I don’t think disconnects in that area will signify any kind of song misinterpretation on my part. The songs mean whatever they are to the person hearing them. That’s just how music and mood work in every individual.

For the sake of organization, I will divide the post into three major emotions I feel when listening to Dylan.

Dylan and Contentment

Dylan and Anger

Dylan and Sadness

I’ll discuss some specific songs that fit into those categories and see if I can read into what Dylan actually meant when he wrote them (it doesn’t help that he has sometimes admitted to not knowing what his own songs mean).

You can check out the first post in this two-part series to get a bit more granular on how music and emotions go together.

Dylan and Contentment

If you look at a hundred photos of Bob Dylan from the early 1960s to 2020, you’ll see him smiling in maybe 25 or 30 of them. The man’s likely an introvert who doesn’t need to express his every feeling for a camera. However, his chronically reserved demeanor doesn’t mean he is never happy. I detect a ton of contentment and joy in many Dylan songs. It’s a nice, positive place to start.

New Morning

The titular track from Dylan’s 1970 album New Morning finds our hero opening with lines about watching the wildlife scurry about outside while he enjoys his lover’s smile on a beautiful morning.

It’s a raucous track, by 1970s folk standards. I don’t need to do much of a close reading to determine Dylan’s outlook here. As a longtime fan of Dylan, I happen to know that the year 1970 found him happily married to his wife, Sara, and raising his young children while living in New York. Dylan had lived in the countryside of Woodstock, NY, in the late 1960s. He enjoyed the simplicity and solitude of life there, especially after the chaos of his highly public 1966 world tour.

What I think “New Morning” comes down to is the contentment Dylan felt in the quiet man’s life. Dylan’s “new morning” was every morning the rooster woke him so he could see a rabbit running out in the sunshine. It was him returning to the house to see the love of his life smiling back at him.

What my exercise in music and emotions requires of me is to be able to empathize with another person, even someone I’ve never met. As a married man who adores my wife, I get Dylan’s sentiments here. I feel the exaltation in the simple pleasures of being young and married, of waking up to see the friendly wildlife outside and knowing my wife is near me.

Listening to “New Morning” makes me wistful for the life I’m currently living. It’s a strange thought, and yet it’s something Dylan has been able to achieve with a song so simple, straightforward, and seemingly devoid of much poetic artistry. That connection to Dylan’s feelings makes me happy for Bob himself when I listen to “New Morning,” even though it was 50 years ago and that period of his life is over.

All the same, as we learned about music and memories in my previous post, I know what I’ll always think about when I hear “New Morning,” whether it’s tomorrow or in another 50 years.


Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You

If we’re talking about Bob Dylan and contentment, then we’re likely going to be finding a lot of songs from the late 1960s and early 1970s. As I wrote above, I am someone who has read Dylan’s biographical information a few times over, and so I know the reason for this happiness. Still, I don’t believe a listener needs this information to detect elation and satisfaction in “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” which comes from Dylan’s 1969 country album Nashville Skyline.

Dylan sings about getting off a train so he can stay with his lover forever. This isn’t the standard poppy love song about failed love or a ruined relationship. It’s Dylan doing a country croon with lively piano accompaniment while singing lyrics about tossing away his hardships and settling down for good.

Those are words spoken by someone who has seen his share of trouble, loneliness, backstabbing, and anything else you can imagine one person doing to another. He’s finally found what makes him whole. This is a happy Dylan, one content to stop rambling down the dusty road and plant himself down with the right woman.

I think about all this as I hear the song. The lyrics and the positive musical arrangements suggest rising joy, acceptance of the pleasures of a pastoral life, and a celebration of the miracle of finding real happiness.

The words and music get in my brain and do their work, I suppose. As with many songs I have heard over the years, I seem to take the place of the narrator in “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You.” Dylan conjures up images of domesticity, having a life partner you love, and being relieved that a certain set of life troubles are behind you. The song makes me wistful and content right alongside Dylan. It’s an incredible musical achievement, and yet, on paper, one so simply composed.

Dylan and Anger

The trouble with Dylan songs, and maybe with all popular songs generally, is that it is nearly impossible to tell which parts of the lyrics, if any, are autobiographical to the writer.

Dylan has claimed he does not write confessional songs. However, he has always been a known purveyor of smoke and mirrors, and so I often struggle to take him at his word.

Regardless, even in the two Dylan and Contentment songs above, I really can’t prove anything. I wouldn’t even say I’m out to produce proof, so far as it would even be possible to do.

angry singing

With Dylan and anger, as with any emotion, one of two things is probably true: either Dylan himself was angry but masked his identity with cryptic lyrics, or he wrote angry songs as plot devices, so to speak, breathing those feelings into his first-person narrators.


Planet Waves (1974) is a little-discussed album by Dylan and his longtime collaborators The Band. It seems it’s the diehards only who care about or know many of the songs from this album. That doesn’t mean the content isn’t worthwhile. It is. One song in particular stands out to me, a deep cut, an angry piano-and-guitar ballad called “Dirge.”

Once again, who can say what Dylan’s true subject was, but we can analyze the words themselves. The narrator expresses self-hatred for loving someone and bitter satisfaction at the relationship having ended. It’s strong Dylan, no watering down with this one.

He goes on to mention concepts such as solitude, hollowness, and doom. “Dirge” ends with a remake of the opening line, about the narrator hating himself for the love he felt.

What kind of situation makes a man hate himself for once loving someone? Who is that other person? What did they do to warrant such a song being written? Furthermore, what do these lyrics say about the narrator, to feel hatred about a feeling as positive as love?

One fact we know from psychology is that anger is often one and the same with sadness. In fact, a psychologist might tell you that anger many times is sadness in masquerade.

The difference is that anger allows us to be on the offensive. It lets us seem like forceful beings, appearing as if we can now control a situation.

Conversely, sadness exposes us as victims of tragedy or unfair treatment. By being sad, we are choosing to “accept” those events and let them get us down.

In that case, the lyrics of “Dirge” seem like a person in defeat and denial. The narrator is saying, “See? I already hate myself for ever thinking I needed you. I’m over you. You can’t hurt me.”

What I fully love about Dylan’s lyrics is just this very thing, Dylan’s ability to get at human feelings through words. We know that humans use anger to cover up their hurt. I hear the words of “Dirge” as the inner monologue of someone who has been through the worst parts of life and is using a classic defense mechanism to go on surviving.

We know what has to lie beneath that kind of emotional savagery. “Dirge” lashes out, if only to keep the song’s subject from lashing first.

Idiot Wind

Dylan’s masterpiece “Idiot Wind,” from 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, is an exercise in bitterness, sarcasm, and hostility, not unlike “Dirge” before it.

Whether the music and mood of “Idiot Wind” is a complete fabrication meant to survive suspended in time for eternity, as Dylan has more or less suggested, or simply Dylan angry at his soon-to-be ex-wife, Sara, one fact remains: “Idiot Wind” is a blistering verbal assault that never lets up throughout its nearly eight-minute run time.

Dylan, or the narrator, attacks people who are telling lies about him in the media before laying into an unnamed female target. The jabs include references to the woman being dead in a ditch and the speaker wondering how she is even able to breathe on her own.

The imagery is violent and disturbing. Even Dylan’s delivery is all-in with the song’s fury. He sings-shouts the words from start to finish, spitting out the lyrics like poison. It might be worth noting that initial takes of “Idiot Wind” found Dylan performing the song as a mournful ballad, alone with his acoustic guitar, while the album version features a full band and Dylan’s more energetic vocal delivery.

Those first few quiet cuts of the song reflect a narrator who is admitting his own hurt but is still no less angry. The released version is all rage.

Here again, the emotions I feel when I listen to “Idiot Wind” are ones I suppose most people would consider negative: sadness and anger.

Why, then, is it a “good” song? I think the reason is that Dylan is able to use his greatest tools, his words and his ragged voice, to project his own emotions so clearly.

His tone is fierce and unbridled, and yet his lyrics remain so eloquently structured as to suggest the self-control of a master poet. It would seem Dylan created these eight venomous minutes during some kind of tantrum, but the word construction suggests otherwise.

Do I enjoy listening to “Idiot Wind,” given all this? Yes and no. The performance is solid and will do when I’m feeling pissy, myself. When I’m not, the song is grating and even unpleasant. Dylan’s emotions can clash with my own.

Sometimes, I can enjoyably let that anger wash over me. Other times, it just isn’t for me. But that’s the force of this song.

Masters of War

I had a select amount of angry Dylan songs that I almost chose for this one, but “Masters of War” won out for its unabashed take on the global nuclear tensions of the early 1960s. Dylan recorded the song for his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963).

“Masters of War” is unusual in the Dylan pantheon because it does away with the ambiguous poetry that characterizes most of Dylan’s work.

The song speaks directly to those “masters” who were threatening the world with nuclear war at the time. Instead of couching his feelings in any kind of allegorical stories, Dylan monotones his anger in lines about the masters hiding away while young soldiers die.

It’s a moralistic condemnation of warmongering, which Dylan saw as irresponsible to the entire world population. How dare you keep ramping up hostilities, Dylan is saying, while expecting all the young people to do the eventual fighting for you?

Later, Dylan questions whether all the money the masters have made in their positions of power will be enough to earn them forgiveness for their sins. The killing stroke comes in the final verse, as Dylan states flatly that he hopes these people die, and that he will follow their bodies as they are lowered into the ground forever.

“Masters of War” leaves almost nothing to the imagination. While the Cold War leaders continue to threaten one another with mutual destruction, Dylan thinks of the safety of everyone who would actually be put in harm’s way because of that.

lightning storm

Another aspect of this song I find worth noting, aside from its directness, is Dylan’s vocal delivery.

Unlike his performance of “Idiot Wind” 12 years later, Dylan sings “Masters of War” in measured tones. It’s controlled anger. He has thought through what he wants to say. The repetitive sounds of his guitar and vocals tell me that this performance expresses a different anger than “Idiot Wind.” This one sounds menacing.

I can feel Dylan’s emotions infecting me when I hear this. I’m a calm person by nature, but if I felt strongly enough about something, I can also see myself penning something like “Masters of War.” If anything, listening to the threatening tone of Dylan’s voice puts me in a state of mind in which I begin considering the world’s troubles from the most sober of perspectives.

Dylan and Sadness

We end this investigation into music and emotions in Bob Dylan’s repertoire with a closer look at sadness in Dylan songs.

With “Dirge,” I mentioned the basic psychological fact of people sometimes using anger as a deep cover for sadness and hurt. Being sad is admitting to ourselves that someone or something has gotten to us where it pains us the most.

Expressing that sadness tells the world we are vulnerable and opens us up to ridicule and other forms of criticism. Yet, sadness is what we can find in Bob Dylan songs from throughout his career. When I think about Dylan, I can truly say, “Here is a man who’s at least honest with himself.”

If we’re talking about sadness in Dylan songs, I could write a book. But let’s cover just a few and discuss how Dylan uses words to convey that sadness to listeners.

Most of the Time

Dylan didn’t always need to be cryptic, apocalyptic, or even especially poetic to express a sentiment. That’s the case with “Most of the Time,” which opened side 2 of his critically acclaimed 1989 record Oh Mercy.

This song is lyrically straightforward, and yet it’s one of the most effective expressions of human emotions in Dylan’s catalog. It gets at how the human brain works in the aftermath of turmoil. Dylan sings about being strong, being a survivor, but only most of the time.

How many of us have felt this way? We encounter great strife in our lives, struggle a bit, and then get into a mindset of being strong again and able to take on the world.

Those feelings are not necessarily permanent. We feel that way…most of the time. Everybody knows those old weaknesses can come creeping in at random. Or they can violently blindside us at the most unexpected moments.

Of course, we recover and get back to our new normals. And we’re all right again, until the next time.

Imagine Dylan, or the narrator of this song, making himself so vulnerable. He is only admitting what many of us feel but don’t discuss. We can present our stone walls to the world almost every minute of every day. The world sees and essentially accepts that illusion of complete strength. But the illusion lasts only so long.

That’s human emotion for you, isn’t it? That’s what sadness appears to be after we’ve recovered from its initial onslaught. I have wondered what was lingering in me in the months and years following traumatic events, the effects of which never seemed to go away completely.

Dylan put into words that otherwise indescribable feeling: I’ve recovered. I’m strong again. Mostly.

Not Dark Yet

Our last song selection is “Not Dark Yet,” which comes from Dylan’s 1997 comeback record Time Out of Mind.

Dylan had not produced much original material in the previous eight years. In the mid-1980s and into the 1990s, he experienced a major career slump, and he was feeling tired and uninspired.

Whether any of this informed how Dylan was feeling about his life and work in 1997, I cannot say for sure. In any event, Daniel Lanois produced that year’s Time Out of Mind, meaning the album bears his characteristic murky and moody atmosphere throughout.

Dylan brought lyrics to match. Each of the songs seems like its own confession of depression, its own rumination on impending doom.

As we’ve been discussing, music and emotions can do funny things to us. Time Out of Mind is a dark work, to be sure.

Why listen to it? Because enveloping yourself in those kinds of feelings can be cathartic. If you let Dylan’s existential crises from this record subsume your thoughts for an hour and 12 minutes, you may just come out the other side having exorcised the demons that were haunting you.

If that’s the case for you, as it has been for me many times, then the mid-album track “Not Dark Yet” is sure to make you feel the most human you’ve ever felt.

broken piano keys

The melancholy guitars and other instrumentation accompany Dylan’s foggy-twilight lyrics. He sings of the lengthening shadows, his unhealed scars, his apathy in the face of other people, and the numbness of his body.

The most poignant parts of the song are the last lines of each stanza, in which Dylan sings that, while things aren’t that bad just yet, darkness will be here soon.

One could perform a dissertation-length analysis of lyrics such as these. I think that, from a psychological perspective, there’s no truer expression of human sadness. It sounds like utter indifference, giving up.

To cap it off, Dylan or the narrator knows what’s coming. No, it isn’t dark just now, but darkness is but one moment away. What will the tipping point be? It almost doesn’t matter.

What is concerning, if a person ever said these words to you, would be how that person arrived at this place to begin with. Would there be a way to bring that person back?

I truly don’t know. I can’t listen to “Not Dark Yet” and not hear someone crying out in this way in the moment before death, possibly even a self-imposed death.

The catharsis that songs produce in listeners can be enormously beneficial to us. Imagine going into “Not Dark Yet” with repressed feelings of sadness, perhaps sentiments you have been hiding away from everyone, even from yourself. Maybe the song gets at you like nothing else has. Maybe you express those feelings.

If music can help you cleanse those secreted emotions, I would say it has done its job.

Final Thoughts

I hope this series–both the previous post on music and emotions and this one specifically related to Bob Dylan’s songs–has laid bare the true force of music on the human mind. Humans are the ones making the music, so we mostly know the elements to infuse into our work to evoke feelings in others.

What we cannot know is how this or that person will take a piece of music, or how the music will infect the person of its own volition.

Dylan’s songs are akin to literature. They are whatever the listener interprets them to be.

Once you realize what emotions a Dylan song is conveying to you, then only you can decide how you respond to those emotions, what they do for you. Do you feel the same? Do you feel differently? Do you like how it makes you feel?

For myself, I know that I have a Dylan song for every day, every occasion, every moment of my life. I know which feelings I want to use Dylan’s music to enhance or suppress, and which songs can actually access those feelings.

I suppose that’s the crux of this two-part series, that Bob Dylan has long been a central figure in my quest to understand the emotional effects of music.

In that sense, Bob has done me a great service: through his own poetic expressions of the complete range of human emotions, he has allowed me to know myself like nothing else has.

Exploring Music and Emotions through Bob Dylan’s Work: Part 1

In mid-2007, I was coming away from a two-year campaign of rock-and-roll headbanging, spearheaded almost exclusively by Led Zeppelin. The band had also directed me to the likes of AC/DC and Rob Zombie, but for the most part, those years belonged to the electric riffs of Jimmy Page, the ground-shaking rhythm section of John Paul Jones and John Bonham, and the primal wailings of Robert Plant.

I was headed for a hard break from all that, but I didn’t know it yet. Led Zeppelin was like a fancified junk food for my mind: tasted great but offered me not much that was real. Thinking back on the band’s catalog, maybe Robert Plant brought emotion to his lyrics when he sang them, but Jimmy had an uncanny ability to play over even sad songs without sounding as though he was expressing his own feelings. He’s secretive that way. The truth was that I didn’t go to Led Zeppelin for emotion, anyway. I went to them to rock.

Then I heard Bob Dylan.

It happened by accident. My local classic rock station mostly stayed away from sensitive singer-songwriter poets like him in favor of Van Halen or Motley Crue. On this particular day in July 2007, the station slipped in its token Dylan for the week in the form of “Positively 4th Street,” a 1965 single.

When that organ started up its wistful lament and Dylan began spitting his lyrical vitriol, I felt like the song had infiltrated a part of my mind that had been lying unused until then.

Dylan’s words hit home for me at that time. He spoke us people calling him a failure or  traitor, when he knew that it was the other way around.

Critics have been wondering as to Dylan’s target in the song for the last 55 years. It’s possible Dylan was attacking those from the Greenwich Village folk scene who had criticized him for abandoning their ranks in the mid-1960s and adopting a more commercial rock sound. Whatever the case, “Positively 4th Street” is classic angry, sarcastic, bitter Dylan, feeling hurt at being treated unfairly.

I listened to these lyrics like a student being taught something by a teacher. Yet foolishness remained. My mind quickly flashed to the mildly inane questions:

“How did Dylan know about that breakup I just had?”

“How did he know that I, too, had been treated unfairly?”

“Why are these lyrics penetrating right to my heart?”

My Led Zeppelin phase was over. Bob Dylan had shattered it.

I now needed to know more about him and where he came from so I could understand his pain. Maybe, if I learned about his experiences to that point in his life, I could comprehend why I had responded so dramatically to his music.

Why Bob Dylan?

Pondering these matters now, I know the explanation of “Positively 4th Street”’s power has to do with the relationship of music and emotions. I understand on a superficial level that music made by humans is capable of affecting the emotions of other humans. But how does one create such music? How would you tap into that? How does a person write a song that resonates so strongly with a 16-year-old 42 years after it was recorded?

Just as my first post spurred me to research why we like the music we like, so does the issue of music and mood drive me forward here. I want to know how and why music can so effectively encourage, diminish, or otherwise balance the emotions of our everyday lives.

bob dylan wall

And I want to do it through the lens of Bob Dylan’s music. Dylan has been a resource–a muse, even–of music critics for 60 years, and for good reason. In Bob Dylan songs, listeners will find no shortage of emotional diversity, from anger and sadness to joy and contentment, from isolation and bitterness to resignation and longing.

I’ve listened to nearly everything Dylan has ever released; I’ve ridden the roller coaster of his career from start to present, from “You’re No Good” (1961) to “Murder Most Foul” (2020). I plan to learn a few things along the way, not just about music and emotions, but maybe about what Bob Dylan really means to me.

This is part 1 of a two-part series. You can read part 2 here.

Music and Emotions: The Basics

I’m sure anyone who actively listens to music knows that it can play with our emotions quite easily. I feel the anger and outrage right alongside Bob Dylan in “Ballad of Hollis Brown” (1964), the sad acceptance of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (1973), and the apocalyptic melancholy of “Blind Willie McTell” (1983).

To expand upon those examples, I want to reference a 2020 study performed by the University of California, Berkeley. Scientists there wanted to discover the same answers I’m now seeking. They played an eclectic mix of songs from all kinds of genres to 2,500 American and Chinese people to gauge their emotional reactions. Even in these two disparate cultures, the researchers found that “The subjective experience of music across cultures can be mapped within at least 13 overarching feelings: amusement, joy, eroticism, beauty, relaxation, sadness, dreaminess, triumph, anxiety, scariness, annoyance, defiance, and feeling pumped up.”

And so, what I want to get at here is why and how music can hold such sway over us.

Music and Pleasure

A good place to start is the research-based assertion that, for our brains, music acts as a controlled substance of sorts. It is generally thought that musical information enters the brain and encourages it to release dopamine, the neurotransmitter that regulates pleasure.

My first reaction to this is that music sounds suspiciously like drugs in this context. I did just compare music to a controlled substance. But it makes sense. Like alcohol, good food, sex, and certain illicit drugs, music makes our brains and bodies feel just fine, like everything is okay with the world.

What’s interesting about this is that grouping music in with those other pleasing consumables suggests that music can also be addicting. A 2017 study by Adiel Mallik et al. found that giving the anti-addiction medication naltrexone to subjects prevented them from drawing any pleasure from hearing their favorite songs. In this context, that apathetic mental state is referred to as musical anhedonia, and it’s apparently found naturally in about 5% of the general population.

The UC Berkeley study notes one vital detail related to this: that mental arousal from hearing music is one thing; which feelings a piece of music arouses in people is endemic to the party hearing it. In other words: the entire world might agree that Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” is meant to be morose or depressing, but individuals will decide whether they draw pleasure from feeling that sadness.

Music and Other Emotions

Pleasure is one of the major emotional ways that humans experience music, but there are many others to discuss, as well. The gatekeeper that seems to make any of this possible at all is the brain’s neocortex, which permits us to engage in highly refined mental activities such as perceiving stimuli, using reasoning, and processing language. People who are able to respond emotionally to music (which is most of us) are believed to have stronger connections between the neocortex’s auditory cortex and the emotion-regulating region.

We see from this that it takes a real group effort from our brains’ disparate elements for us to feel emotion at hearing music. And pleasure is not the only way we experience music. Music may also surprise us, for instance, by not progressing in a way our brains have come to expect. Music can generate literal action in us by making us want to dance or drum our fingers to a beat.

jazz girl

Humans also tend to model their demeanors and behavior on the emotions of the music they are hearing, as in: Dylan’s “From a Buick 6” will never not make me smile and give the car just a little more gas while I’m cruising the backroads.

Music and Memory

And, of course, many people know about the power of music to evoke memories, even ones from long ago. Memories of favorite music have been found to remain in the brain even when other memories have failed due to old age or any other reason. The brain is able to create musical memories due to the collaborative, large-scale effort among its components to take in and process music. That processing leaves connections and other imprints of the music all over the brain.

That’s a layperson’s description of how musical memories work, but it makes sense even on that level. Whether it’s Dylan or any other musician I love, I can almost always recall some specific memory of a time and place when I first started enjoying a certain song. Many people anecdotally report being able to do this.

For context, here are some examples from my own experiences, with Dylan songs in this case:

  • When I hear “Queen Jane Approximately” (1965), I think of the year 2010, when I first listened to the album that came from, Highway 61 Revisited. I was in college, and the sounds and feelings of Dylan’s first legitimately great album made me feel like I had a new friend in the world.
  • The Levee’s Gonna Break” (2006) reminds me of my 2014 Northern California trip. I was driving back up State Route 1 from San Simeon to my hotel in Monterey in the twilight hour of 8 or 9 o’clock. That was a long-haul drive, and for whatever reason, I played that song on repeat for most of the journey.
  • Shot of Love” (1981) takes me right back to the summer of 2011, when I first listened to that song and the album named for it. That was an idyllic summer for me, for no reason other than the fact that I had the time to read some great books and listen to a lot of meaningful music.

 What’s fascinating about musical memories is that they also seem to retain the emotions we experienced when the memories themselves were created. As such, people can go back and listen to this or that song and actually relive the memory in a certain kind of way, to ride the wave of nostalgia for a few moments.

I don’t mind taking on some bittersweet flashbacks now and again. I’ve done it many times. “The Levee’s Gonna Break” instantly conjures the excitement of my solo crusade up and down the Northern California highways, while “Shot of Love” flashes the hot summer of 2011 through my head. In a matter of seconds, I can recall the images and feelings of those times, and I take comfort in revisiting them once again.

Even though I now know why humans are able to recall the past from music, I still find the phenomenon incredible. This makes me truly stand in awe at the power of music.

Applying the Science of Music and Emotions

I’ve learned quite a bit about music and emotions from the research I’ve presented here. The above is not an exhaustive detailing of all there is to know about this subject, but I feel I have a decent foundation now to think about my favorite music in new ways. I understand why my relationship to music is so strong, and, based on the research, it’s likely due to factors beyond my control. I have some robust white-matter connections in my neocortex, like billions of other people on the planet. Science says that music and mood come down to simply that.

However, looking back on this, there’s a certain negative feeling I get when I consider that we can boil down human emotions to the biological processes in our brain matter; putting emotions that way seems to lend our collective humanity a sterile, laboratory-type quality. I know it’s a much more attractive standpoint to refer to emotions as something other than what science can describe, something more human and relating to the “heart.”

To get into any of that would be beyond my scope here. I would only say that, although science can explain the relationship between music and emotions quite efficiently, I don’t think of my white matter when a song is affecting my emotions. I am a human, and my feelings ebb and flow through me as they do with anyone else. I tend to leave them there, in their natural habitat.

With all that covered, I feel prepared to move on to a discussion of how Bob Dylan’s most interesting work has connected with me emotionally over the decade-plus that I’ve been listening to Dylan. I know intuitively what those feelings are, but it will be something else entirely to convert that information into a consumable form for an audience.

Regardless, I hope that’s an adventure you take with me. That part of this post will appear soon, and when it does, I will update this post to link there.

Why Do We Like the Music We Like?

If you were preparing to meet a total stranger and wanted a quick rundown on this person–some basic information to help you determine who you were dealing with–you might examine the individual’s occupation, family history, criminal background, and so on. Those areas alone could provide tremendous insight into who people are and what they’ve done.

If I were playing this game, I would also inquire into the person’s taste in music.

That question seems trivial, silly even, almost as though I were trying to be funny. After all, “What kind of music do you like?” is about as close to a parlor question as one could ask. It’s a question for first dates.

But think for a moment about the purpose of first dates. They are usually planned so two people can get to know each other. Of course, anyone who’s been on a first date probably just hopes the other person names an artist or genre that the couple can enjoy together.

I see the music question as more than an idle time-passer, preferring to approach this kind of investigation with much more gravity.

“What kind of music do you like?”

I try to ask that question of everyone I know. You might now be wondering: if I don’t ask the question to pass the time or solely to find some common interest with the person, why do I ask it at all?

It’s because I believe honest answers can tell me almost as much about people as their family background or psychological profiles, just from a different angle. From a person’s musical tastes, I begin to make judgments. I am not referring to cruel, unfair prejudices against a new acquaintance. Rather, those musical tastes give me an idea of who people are, perhaps where they come from, and, most importantly, how they think and what puts them in touch with their emotions.

Social Interpretations of Musical Interests

I will provide a few quick and easy examples of how I personally might think about people’s answers to my question. If a friend in 2020 names Bob Dylan, The Band, and J.J. Cale (as I might answer, myself) as musical tastes, I could say to myself, “Artists from the 60s and 70s. It’s all folk and roots and blues and blues rock. These are classic artists, often gentle and melancholy. I think this person might like long drives and watching the sunset after mowing the lawn. Probably the person truly feels and understands the emotions in those artists’ lyrics.”

Those would be my thoughts. You might think entirely different thoughts, or not know who any of those artists are.

If I get an answer such as “I really enjoy listening to Gregorian chants from around the world,” I might wonder if Christianity plays or once played an important role in the individual’s life. Similarly, if someone’s favorite music is the violin concertos of Franz Joseph Haydn, I would probably instantly assume, in a natural human way, that the individual was raised in a somewhat more cultured environment than other people, or that the person adopted the culture later. Classical music in 2020 is a niche interest. I would inquire gently into the person’s upbringing and whether that taste descended from a parent.

Maybe none of my quick assumptions would be correct in any of those cases. I’d never know until I asked.

What I find most intriguing is that those three answers would put those ideas in my head at all. Those are all cultural associations I was making, for instance, between the enjoyment of Bob Dylan and the proclivity for appreciating a sunset. That view comes from my own experiences, and obviously we must not try to interpret the world only from our own perspectives.

But there are still hard, rudimentary facts you can draw from someone’s stated musical interests. If you like Gregorian chants, you must be able to draw some pleasure from Latin a cappella vocalizations of a Christian nature. Similarly, if you listen to Haydn, you probably are just fine with the crying sounds of a violin.

My ultimate question in these cases–and the crux of this post–is: “Why do certain people like certain genres of music?” What creates those interests? What is responsible for the great diversity of musical preferences around the world? And why do those interests tend more or less to stay the same as we age?

I am as interested in those answers as anyone who is intently reading this. The matter fascinates me because we know that humans can’t exactly choose what they like, love, dislike, or hate.

Play me some house music. I won’t like it. It just isn’t in my brain that way.

I tend to ponder these matters on my own, without the aid of psychology or any other hard science. However, to address the question “Why do we like the music we like?” with the weight I feel it is owed, let’s dig into the research and try to interpret it as best we can.

Here are three reasons why we like the music we like.

1.  Musical Familiarity Comes from Our Early Years

Just as parents start instilling language sounds in their children from birth, so, too, does music take hold in our brains as we are growing up. We hear and become familiar with the music around us, whether it’s the typical chord progressions of Western rock or the music produced by the eight bayin, or categories, of traditional Chinese instruments. This is how types of music become ingrained in us. As infants, we can’t say we like this or that artist or song specifically, but we become accustomed to the styles of music we hear all the time. That familiarity would seem to breed actual interest later.

I can join probably millions of other Americans in attesting to this fact. I grew up hearing whatever my parents liked to listen to in the car or on the radio my dad had installed on the back wall of the shower. In my case, I was raised among the sounds of Frank Sinatra, Celine Dion, polka music, and whatever could be found on mainstream adult-contemporary FM stations.

It’s an eclectic collection, but origins in the Western world unite all those artists and genres. What does Ol’ Blue Eyes have to do with polka music? Nothing, really. But, by hearing those sounds repeatedly, my brain became accustomed to the beats and measures of what Western audiences liked in their music. This must be why the music I first started seeking out was American and British rather than Korean or South African.

My research into this subject has put the matter succinctly: just as hearing our parents speak to us as newborns primes our brains to speak our native language, so, too, does early music exposure equip us to recognize those musical styles.

2.  Musical Tastes Generally Form around Age 14

A second factor that influences our tastes in music is our age. Multiple sources I have found indicate that musical interests tend to take hold in our brains when we become teenagers, actually right around 14 years old (though women tend to become attached to music at slightly earlier ages than men, at about 11 or 12 years old).

I understand research that makes umbrella statements such as that are obviously generalizing based on studies. Not every human who likes music started thinking deeply about it at exactly age 14. But that general era of our childhoods are impressionable times for us.

circle of music notes

The reason for this seems to be none other than that great human equalizer known as puberty. You remember puberty, don’t you? That was when you heard songs that seemed to speak to your anxious, questioning, teenaged self and alleviate whatever stresses you were experiencing at the time.

This bit of research is mildly amusing to me because, although I always enjoy being an exception to some rule or statistic, I fit right into the numbers in this case. In 2005, when I was 14 years old, I heard Led Zeppelin for the first time, and it changed the direction of my life.

Led Zeppelin became an obsession. It was all I wanted and needed. My discovery of the blues music that had lent Led Zeppelin its existence was still a full decade away. All I knew was that those primal beats and grooves were what my life had been missing. Songs such as “Dazed and Confused” and “Kashmir” let me enjoy living in a way I hadn’t experienced to that point.

I mean this last point literally, because Led Zeppelin ended what I might call my “desert years” of music interests, when I had none whatsoever. I listened to some Backstreet Boys in the late 1990s, but from around 2000 to 2005, I was not only disinterested in music, but I actively disliked it. I would get into the car with my parents and become angered at hearing the radio and ask that they turn it off.

I was a super fun kid.

Around the age of 14 is also apparently when people start incorporating their musical interests into their actual identities. Scientific research points to growth hormones as the reason for this, the cause of people feeling so seriously about their music that they see it as symbiotic with themselves.

That also resonates with me. From 2005 to 2007, you would have thought Led Zeppelin was of my own making. I needed to let everyone know about them, in case people hadn’t heard the word 30 years earlier. I wore the t-shirts, bought the posters, and blasted the music from my parents’ front porch to show off to the neighbors (who were all 75 years old and didn’t care anyway).

Musical Interests Solidify around 24 Years Old

For me, Led Zeppelin turned out to be the gateway drug to all the other major actors of Western classic rock, from the Doors to the Who to AC/DC to Steve Miller and Van Halen. I consumed all of this heavily from ages 14 through 16, after which my interests began shifting to grunge and heavy metal and other harder stuff. Of course, the shifts only continued from there.

Here again, I fit nicely into scholarly research suggesting that musical tastes change and flow frequently until we turn about 24 years old. At about that age, we seem to know exactly what we like and what we would like if we heard it (though there is always time to pick up a new artist or genre, no matter our age). In 2015, at age 24, I picked up the blues and haven’t put them down again.

I will eventually pen a love letter to that genre here, but let’s move on.

3.  Our Personalities and Psyches Inform Our Musical Tastes

The last research item to discuss here is the assertion that our personal characteristics and modes of thinking influence our musical preferences.

To this point, I recommend the fascinating 2003 paper “The Do Re Mi’s of Everyday Life: The Structure and Personality Correlates of Music Preferences,” written by Peter J. Rentfrow and Samuel D. Gosling of the University of Texas at Austin.

The authors lament that so little research has actually been done on the psychological components of music and what our musical tastes say about us as individuals. Rentfrow and Gosling rightly claim that music is as deserving of scientific inquiry as any other subject due to its omnipresence in just about everyone’s lives. Granted, many people see music as nothing more than entertainment with a good beat, or something to pass the time.

However, for those who care enough about their music to, say, create a blog about it, let’s get into this subject.

Rentfrow and Gosling cite 1950s research asserting that musical tastes provide insights into a person’s unconscious, almost in the manner of Freudian dreams. That seems to be more of a dated and niche view now. The authors reference more recent research, from the 1980s and 1990s, that claims our music preferences are more indicative of our overt psychological characteristics.

Examples the authors provide include:

  • Fans of rock, punk, and heavy metal tend to enjoy sensations and mental arousal
  • Fans of bass-heavy music such as rap are often extroverts
  • Heavy metal fans are generally more aroused than country music fans when listening to their music

The real meat of Rentfrow and Gosling’s research is an experiment that divided up music genres into broad categories and then matched individuals’ musical preferences with personality traits. For instance, fans of “reflective and complex” musical genres, such as classical and jazz, tended to be intelligent and liberal. Meanwhile, people who enjoyed “energetic and rhythmic” music such as soul and funk were said to be extroverted, liberal, agreeable, and talkative.

head with musical notes

Now, that’s just one experiment that attempted to get at the correlations between musical interests and personality, and I think it sheds fascinating light on the subject. But no such experiment can ever be all-encompassing in determining what our favorite music says about us. Sometimes, all it says is that we like that music.

For instance, I would place most of my favorite genres into the “reflective and complex” category, suggesting I am an introvert (which I assure you I am). I also adore James Brown, Parliament, Rick James, and other kinds of funky dance music. Does that make me an extrovert as well as an introvert? No. It means I like different music genres.

How, then, should we think about this kind of research? I think it serves as more of a guide than a set of rules, as if to say, “Here is a good place to start in understanding the intersection of music and the mind.”

Other studies have researched music preferences as they relate to thinking styles. The results come out more or less the same: empathetic people seem to enjoy introspective music such as folk and R&B, while people who think more logically and even mathematically tend to focus on structured music such as jazz.

Once again, scientific experiments such as these are true gifts to those of us who care, but I don’t believe there is any one way to interpret what every person’s musical interests say about what lies in the brain. Yes, it’s possible and maybe even likely that blues, jazz, and classical fans will be quiet and introspective, but what if they just like the music for the music?

Final Thoughts

It’s been fun to chart a sort of logical pathway of how musical tastes form and take hold in our minds. I have long been interested in this subject and learned a lot in researching and writing this. Part of me does think about music in these scientific and scholarly ways. The question “Why do we like the music we like?” flashes across my mind probably once every few weeks. I enjoy having some semblance of an answer now.

At the same time, other questions remain. “Why do we like music at all?” I know there are answers to that, surface-level ones and deeper ones. “What would happen to my mind if I permanently isolated myself from all music or anything representing a beat?” We could ask prisoners in solitary confinement about that. Those are inquiries for another time.

For now, I am satisfied with the research I’ve done. It means I can enjoy my Buddy Guy, Art Blakey, James Brown, and Bernstein-conducting-Beethoven while benefiting from knowing what it all may suggest about me. Just don’t go calling me an extrovert.

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