Last week, Pitbull’s “Timber” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100. The song, which features Ke$ha singing “It’s going down, I’m yelling timber” over a faux-country harmonica hook, also topped the digital charts, downloaded by 301,000 people. The video of Ke$ha line dancing in a country bar and Pitbull petting sharks, swimming while wearing a suit, standing on a beach near a beautiful woman, and generally just having a good time being Pitbull has been seen over 57 million times on YouTube. “We about to clown. Why?” the Miami rapper asks rhetorically to a crowd of people convinced and utterly delighted by the answer: “‘Cause it’s about to go down!”
The track’s success brings up an important question: why do people listen to this?
This isn’t meant as a knock on Pitbull, but as a broader sociological inquiry. Why listen to this stuff? What are the rewards here? Why are people giving iTunes their hard-earned cash when they could be putting that dollar into a retirement savings account or enjoying a delicious Coca-Cola? Why, really, do we like music?
Our appreciation of music is one of the mysteries of human existence. Unlike sex or food, listening to music offers no obvious biological benefit. Music is a pleasure, that much is obvious, but the dimensions of that pleasure are difficult to articulate.
Over the last decade or so, scientists have run all sorts of studies to peek into our brains and see exactly how they’re hardwired to love songs. Music has been empirically proven to create emotional responses and provoke physiological changes, causing our pupils to dilate and our blood pressure to rise. Scientists have used neuroimaging to watch the reward-related brain networks light up like the Miami skyline when listening to a favourite song.
The physiological response, however, can only explain so much. In a recent article called “Individual Differences in Music Reward Experiences,” a group of five authors—neurologists and academics working on cognition and brain plasticity—have tried to develop a questionnaire that can authoritatively determine the reasons a person might go to an opera or download a Ke$ha album. The study, published in Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, is just the latest attempt to create a tool to answer a basic question: what is the purpose of music?
At times, the study reads a bit like a group of aliens attempting to explain an everyday aspect of human life, like trying to quantify the best colour. “Large individual differences are observed across individuals in how music is experienced,” the authors write, meaning simply that some people like music more than others.
The authors divide all aspects of musical appreciation into five broad categories. The first, “emotion evocation,” just means that people listen to music to feel something. People also use music as a “mood or hedonic regulator”—they wallow in melancholy and nostalgia by turning on an old Tori Amos album or try to pump themselves up by blasting Beyoncé. We like music that allows us to “spontaneously and intuitively synchronize our body movement to a rhythm’s beat,” (a fact that “Timber,” like so many Top 40 songs, feels the need to make explicit, telling the listener, “You better move, you better dance”). We also listen to music to “bond in social groups,” to fit into a clique or to find companionship with fellow music-lovers. And, finally, we enjoy “musical seeking,” taking pleasure in being the first to know about a new Brooklyn buzz band or the last to remember a forgotten blues singer.
A series of 112 items was winnowed down to 22 questions, such as: “I sometimes feel chills when I hear a melody I like,” or, “at a concert I feel connected to the performers and the audience” which participants either agreed or disagreed with on a scale of 1-5. The authors hope that the survey, called the Barcelona Music Reward Questionnaire, can act as a simple, tidy tool to suss out differences in how people appreciate music.
Thus far, the results they’ve found using the BMRQ haven’t been particularly astonishing. People who were open to new experiences tended to be music lovers, across all dimensions. They found that women scored higher than men in every category except “music seeking” (the dorky record store dude with the snobby knowledge of Krautrock deep cuts remains a viable stereotype).
In the end, the BMRQ can feel a bit silly, like so much dancing about architecture. Music, after all, is supposed to be one of those things that’s simply felt, not analyzed to death. But it’s these seemingly ineffable experiences that can be the most interesting to dive into. True pleasures don’t evaporate under the harsh light of analysis: they grow more complex and interesting.
By stuffing every conceivable reason for listening to music into these five categories, the researchers are attempting to assert a little bit of order into the messy, chaotic process that happens when you decide to press play on a song. The people like “Timber.” I, for one, would like to know why.