Our brains reward us for seeking out what we already know.
So why should we reach to listen to something we don’t?
Listening to new music is hard. Not hard compared to going to space or war, but hard compared to listening to music we already know. I assume most Americans—especially those who have settled into the groove of life after 30—simply don’t listen to new music because it’s easy to forgo the act of discovery when work, rent, children, and broadly speaking “life” comes into play. Eventually, we bow our heads and cross a threshold where most music becomes something to remember rather than something to experience. And now, on top of everything else, here we all are, crawling through this tar pit of panic and dread, trying to heft some new music through historic gravity into our lives. It feels like lifting a couch.
Why do we even listen to new music anymore? Most people have all the songs they could ever need by the time they turn 30. Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube can whisk us back to the gates and gables of our youth when life was simpler. Why leap off a cliff hoping you’ll be rescued by your new favorite album on the way down when you can lay supine on the terra firma of your “Summer Rewind” playlist? Not just in times of great stress, but for all times, I genuinely ask: Why spend time on something you might not like?
It was a question that Coco Chanel, Marcel Duchamp, and the rest of the Parisian audience might have asked at the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, an orchestral ballet inspired by the Russian composer’s dream about a young girl dancing herself to death. On a muggy night at the end of May, inside a newly constructed theater along the Seine, those who chose to bear witness to something new experienced a piece of music that would presage a new world of art.
Stravinsky, having already thrilled Paris with his ferociously complex Firebird ballet three years earlier, was the bright young thing of symphonic music in Paris, and The Rite was to be something essentially unheard of. Drawing from the Slavic and Lithuanian folk music of his homeland and his viscerally atavistic brain, Stravinsky blackened his score with rhythmic and harmonic tension, stretching phrases to their outer limits and never bothering to resolve them. The harmonies were difficult to name and his rhythms impossible to follow. Leonard Bernstein later described The Rite as “the best dissonances anyone ever thought up, and the best asymmetries and polytonalities and polyrhythms and whatever else you care to name.”
After months of grueling rehearsals, the lights finally drew down at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées that evening. The Rite began with a solo bassoon squeezing out a riff so high in its register that it sounded uncannily like a broken English horn. This alien sound was—apparently and unintentionally—so strange that chuckles erupted from the bourgeoisie in the mezzanine boxes and rippled through the crowd below. The dissonant opening gave way to the martial assault of the second movement, “The Augurs of Spring,” and the dancers—choreographed by the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky of the Ballets Russes—bounded on stage, moving squeamishly and at jagged angles. As recounted in the daily newspaper Le Figaro and in various books and memoirs since, the chuckles turned into jeers, then shouting, and soon the audience was whipped into such a frenzy that their cries drowned out the orchestra.
Many members of the audience could not fathom this new music; their brains—figuratively, but to a certain extent, literally—broke. A brawl ensued, vegetables were thrown, and 40 people were ejected from the theater. It was a fiasco consonant with Stravinsky’s full-bore attack on the received history of classical music, and thus, every delicate sense in the room. “One literally could not, throughout the whole performance, hear the sound of music,” Gertrude Stein recalled in her memoir. The famous Italian opera composer Giacamo Puccini described the performance to the press as “sheer cacophony.” The critic for the daily newspaper Le Figaro noted that it was a piece of “laborious and puerile barbarity.”
Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is now hailed as the most sweepingly influential piece of music composed in the early 20th century, a tectonic shift in form and aesthetic that was, as the critic Alex Ross wrote in his book The Rest Is Noise, “lowdown yet sophisticated, smartly savage, style and muscle intertwined.” Within the brambles of The Rite are the seeds of an entire outgrowth of modernism: jazz, experimental, and electronic music flow back to The Rite. Maybe the Parisian audience wasn’t expecting a feat so unfamiliar and new that night, they simply wanted to hear music they recognized that drew upon the modes and rhythms they had come to know. Life was on one track, and suddenly they were thrust off into the unknown. Instead of a reliable Debussy ballet, many left the theater that night miserable, agitated, with few jettisoned cabbage leaves stuck to their dresses, and for what, just to hear some new music?
One of my favorite pieces of arts criticism is a 2016 article from The Onion titled, “Nation Affirms Commitment to Things They Recognize.” From music to celebrities to clothing brands to conventional ideas of beauty, the joke is self-explanatory: People love the stuff they already know. It’s a dictum too obvious to dissect, a positive-feedback loop as stale as the air in our self-isolation chambers: We love the things we know because we know them and therefore we love them. But there is a physiological explanation for our nostalgia and our desire to seek comfort in the familiar. It can help us understand why listening to new music is so hard, and why it can make us feel uneasy, angry, or even riotous.
It has to do with the plasticity of our brain. Our brains change as they recognize new patterns in the world, which is what makes brains, well, useful. When it comes to hearing music, a network of nerves in the auditory cortex called the corticofugal network helps catalog the different patterns of music. When a specific sound maps onto a pattern, our brain releases a corresponding amount of dopamine, the main chemical source of some of our most intense emotions. This is the essential reason why music triggers such powerful emotional reactions, and why, as an art form, it is so inextricably tied to our emotional responses.
Take the chorus of “Someone Like You” by Adele, a song that has one of the most recognizable chord progressions in popular music: I, V, vi IV. The majority of our brains have memorized this progression and know exactly what to expect when it comes around. When the corticofugal network registers that of “Someone Like You,” our brain releases just the right amount of dopamine. Like a needle tracing the grooves of a record, our brains trace these patterns. The more “records” we own, the more patterns we can recall to send out that perfect dopamine hit.
In his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, the writer and one-time neuroscience lab worker Jonah Lehrer writes about how the essential joy of music comes in how songs subtly toy with patterns in our brains, spiking the dopamine more and more without sending it off the charts. “Someone Like You” is Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m Goin’ Down” is Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” is Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” and so on—this is the entire neuroscientific marketing plan behind pop music. But when we hear something that hasn’t already been mapped onto the brain, the corticofugal network goes a bit haywire, and our brain releases too much dopamine as a response. When there is no anchor or no pattern on which to map, music registers as unpleasant, or in layman’s terms, bad. “If the dopamine neurons can’t correlate their firing with outside events,” Lehrer writes, “the brain is unable to make cogent associations.” We go a bit mad. No wonder the audience at the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring thought that it sucked: there was almost no precedent for it.
Like the premise of that Onion article, our auditory cortex is also a positive-feedback loop. The way the corticofugal system learns new patterns limits our experiences by making everything we already know far more pleasurable than everything we don’t. It’s not just the strange allure of the song your mother played when you were little or wanting to go back to that time in high school driving down country roads with the radio on. It’s that our brains actually fight against the unfamiliarity of life. “We are built to abhor the uncertainty of newness,” writes Lehrer.
If all the brain science is mostly on the side of listening to popular hits and golden oldies, that might explain why, for the vast majority of American listeners, music is just one small facet of life. Most people experience music as a passive creature comfort, like socks or reality television. In this historic moment of colossal fear and dread, music listeners are in desperate need of comfort. Of the 32 artists we asked, almost all of them were listening to music that is older, soothing, familiar; the same thing happened when we asked ourselves what we were listening to in isolation. (I do realize that old music can be new music if you’ve never heard it before, but you get it.)
The act of listening to new music in the midst of a global pandemic is hard, but it’s necessary. The world will keep spinning and culture must move with it, even if we are staid and static in our homes, even if the economy grinds to a halt, even if there are no shows, no release parties, and even artists sink even further into the precarity that defines a career as a musician. The choice to listen to new music prioritizes, if for one listen only, the artist over you. It is an emotional risk to live for a moment in the abyss of someone else’s world, but this invisible exchange powers the vanguard of art, even in times of historic inertia.
It also appears that we are in the most impressionable era in generations as each day brings some new, heretofore unfathomable statistic. In this unfamiliar world, our brains have never been more plastic—a spongy tabula rasa onto which you can imprint a new timestamp. My other argument for constant exploration is that I will assuredly remember these pandemic days, the way I remember my first breakup or my first love and the songs that defined them. Don’t let history be recursively defined by a feedback loop. Steer into the skid, pour the fear and dread leaking through your roof into something unfamiliar, because it could be the new artifact that exclusively defines this moment for you—a new friend who totally loves you for what you’ve become.
To those of you getting back into discovering new music, you’re not alone. The incredible $4.3 million Bandcamp paid out to musicians in one single day will hopefully bode well for the health of new music, and like clockwork, every Friday will still come with a big sack of new albums to open. The coda to the famous The Rite of Spring riot at its premiere in Paris is not often told, but it’s crucial to the full life of the piece. After the melee of that evening, the ballet continued running at the theater for many months. Alex Ross writes: “Subsequent performances were packed, and at each one the opposition dwindled. At the second, there was noise only during the latter part of the ballet; at the third, ‘vigorous applause’ and little protest. At a concert performance of Rite one year later, ‘unprecedented exaltation’ and a ‘fever of adoration’ swept over the crowd, and admirers mobbed Stravinsky in the street afterward, in a riot of delight.” What is unheard of could define history—might as well come for the show.
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