25 Facts About the Science of Music

On this mental_floss List Show, John Green shares some little-known facts about the science of music.

Don't miss an episode—subscribe here! (Images and footage provided by Shutterstock. Transcript provided by Nerdfighteria Wiki.) 

Hi, I'm John Green, welcome to my salon. This is mental_floss video, and did you know that: 

1. "Wannabe" by the Spice Girls is the catchiest song of all time? I guess I should give you some context for that fact, although it's clearly true. In 2014, a group of researchers released an online game called Hooked on Music. It had a thousand quips from pop hits, going all the way back to the 1940s, and it asked players to identify songs as fast as possible. They found that Wannabe by the Spice Girls was the catchiest song because people were able to recognize it in about 2.3 seconds, way below the average of 5 seconds. Second place: "Mambo No. 5" by Lou Bega (great, now that's going to be in my head all day), and third place was "Eye of the Tiger." Nope, "Mambo No. 5" is gone, it's "Eye of the Tiger" all day long.

Anyway, that's the first of many facts about music I am going to share with you today in this video brought to you by our friends at GEICO.

2. A 2014 study found that while people listened to music they described as "chill-inducing," they were more generous. Like, the 22 participants played a game in which they were dictators who had to decide how to distribute money to fake people, and ones who listened to their preferred "chill-inducing" music beforehand were more generous than those who listened to music they didn't like or those who heard nothing at all.

3. That might have you wondering what causes the chills while you're listening to music. A 2011 study found that adults who are open to new experiences are most likely to get chills while listening to music, and they tended to be the same people who listened to more music and valued it. 

4. Music has been shown to trigger the nucleus accumbens in the brain, and that structure is also associated with dopamine, the chemical the brain releases during eating and sex, so some experts compare music's effects to, you know, sex. I suppose it depends on the music, though. I actually became pregnant, briefly, after listening to Missy Elliott's most recent single. 

5. There was another study that used an fMRI machine to examine the activity of the nucleus accumbens while people listened to music. Researchers played 60 clips of novel songs to participants and then they asked how much money the participants would pay for the song. The more activity the music created in the nucleus accumbens, the more people were willing to spend. In short, soon enough, record labels will have little chips in our brains that charge based on how much they say we enjoyed the music. 

6. In the 1990s, a scientist named Sheila Woodward of the University of Capetown set out to determine whether a fetus can hear music, so she placed a two-inch, underwater microphone into the wombs of women in labor. As if labor doesn't suck enough already. Anyway, Woodward discovered that music is detectable in the womb. She also found that the heart rate of fetuses becomes elevated while the music is playing, so they can very likely hear it and even react to it. Side note: Everyone told us to play, like, Beethoven up against my wife's belly while we were pregnant with our children. I guess technically we weren't pregnant. That's a bit of a funny phrasing, isn't it? It's really ownership over a thing that you are not. That was a side note to the side note. But anyway, we mostly played Beyoncé, and, sure enough, now our kids are awesome! 

7. Music is important to infants as well, which is why we continue to play our kids Beyoncé. In 2013, researchers studied the effects of music on 272 premature infants in a neonatal intensive care unit, and they found that playing lullabies to the babies resulted in multiple positive behaviors, including lower heart rates and higher caloric intake.

8. And listening to music has also been shown to improve the immune systems of adults. A team from McGill University examined 400 research papers about music and the brain in 2013, and they found that music decreases anxiety and assists immune system function.

9. And then there's a 2008 study from Heriot-Watt University that had the surprising conclusion that classical music fans and heavy metal fans are very similar, at least psychologically. The researchers surveyed 36,000 music fans from six different countries and found that listeners of these two genres tended to be creative, gentle, and self-assured, except when in the mosh pit.

10. Now, a lot of people wonder why teenagers tend to listen to their music so loudly; They're also the same people who scream "Get off my lawn!" and cut in line at the airport and insist that they shouldn't have to take off their shoes. In short, they're me. Anyway, it turns out that low frequency sounds above ninety decibels stimulate the sacculus in the inner ear, and that has actually been connected to the parts of the brain associated with pleasure. So it's possible that listening to loud music can actually increase the positive components of music, but it's definite that it can increase deafness. Just ask me, but don't ask me when you're sitting to my left, because I can't hear you. 

11. Music in dreams is considered quite rare. According to one study from MIT, about 40 percent of musicians' dreams contain musical content, but in non-musicians that number drops down to about 18 percent.

12. Some studies have discovered a link between drumming and intelligence. Are you sure, Meredith? That seems very unlikely to me. Have you ever met a drummer? Apparently, one study even found that men who scored higher on a 60 problem intelligence test were better at keeping a steady beat on the drums than people who scored lower on the test. My brother is a drummer; This is very disconcerting news to me.

13. There was a French study published in the journal Learning and Individual Differences which found that students did better on a quiz after a one-hour lecture with classical music in the background than students who learned the same material without the classical music playing.

14. And then there's tear-jerker songs. One 2014 study surveyed a group of people in order to determine why we enjoy sad music. I think it's because "sad songs, they say so much," he said, realizing that no one would get his Elton John references. The study pinned down four different rewards of music-evoked sadness: Reward of imagination, emotional regulation, empathy, and no real-life implications. Mark, I wonder if those rewards apply to other sad forms of entertainment. I'm just asking for a friend, of course. Well, and because I love the movie Steel Magnolias. Just, whenever I need a good cry, which on average is once every three days, I'll watch Steel Magnolias.

15. Anyway, speaking of moods, listening to happy or sad music changes how we interpret facial expressions. One study had participants listen to happy or sad music and then rate faces with happy, sad, or neutral expressions, and the music actually changed participants. Like, neutral faces were rated as happier by people who had listened to happy music, and the opposite was true with people who'd listened to sad music.

16. People obviously have varied taste in music, but our brains seem to act similarly when it comes to individual pieces. Like, one study had participants listen to real but obscure symphonic music and pseudo-music while in an fMRI machine, and their brains had very similar synchronization and patterns while real music played.

17. Single, straight mental_floss video fans, here is a fact for you: According to one piece of research, single, straight men and women report increased sexual attraction for the opposite sex if music is playing the background when they first meet. But what kind of music? I mean, presumably it's Nicki Minaj, but we won't know for sure until we invest the necessary resources to study it! I've already coined a term for it: The Minaj Effect. We just need the research to back up the term! 

18. Anyway, in 2012, a group of scientists at the Spanish National Research Council published their research on pop songs between the years 1955 and 2010. They discovered that pop songs from recent years utilize fewer chords, tones, and pitch transitions than songs from the past. But I still prefer Bieber's new album to ABBA. 

19. There's actually a field of study in which musicians and computer scientists are trying to figure out how to create pop music based entirely on algorithms. It's known as pop music automation.

20. Speaking of song-writing, one scientist set out to find a formula for tear-jerking songs. He discovered a few features that tend to work, including an expansion of the frequencies played, unexpected deviations in the melody or the harmony, and the abrupt entrance of a new voice. That scientist's name: Bon Iver. In fact, it was not. A prime example of a song containing all of those attributes is Someone Like You by Adele. No surprises there, it's a tear-jerker. 

21. Of course, music often triggers memories in people and, it turns out, it can do the same thing in people who have impaired memories. In one 2013 study, a handful of people who had brain injuries scored higher on a test of autobiographical memories while listening to a playlist containing number one hit songs from 1960 through 2010.

22. There's a certain type of music we associate with horror films, right? Like, in addition to minor chords, you might remember the use of high-pitched sounds in movies like Jaws and The Shining. Well, it turns out these sound a lot like the screeches of baby animals. Experts think the reason the music is making us feel uneasy is because we are biologically programmed to feel endangered when we hear those sounds.

23. In 1911, researcher Leonard Ayres had cyclists pedal to silence and then to a live band playing music and, unsurprisingly, he found that they pedaled faster while the band played.

24. And, jumping forward a hundred years, a 2012 study found that while cyclists pedaled in time to music, they needed seven percent less oxygen than cyclists who pedaled to silence. 

25. And finally I return here to my salon to tell you about how music might affect the stock market. Researchers have examined the beat variants of the songs in the U.S. Billboard Top 100 charts in a given year and compared that data with the S&P 500 for the same year, and from 1958 through 2007 they found that people prefer to listen to simpler songs just before the market gets volatile. This might be because they're thinking about difficult future decisions, so they like songs with less beat variance, or it might be that major record labels control the stock market.

Thanks for watching this episode of mental_floss video, which was brought to you by GEICO and made with the help of all of these wonderful people. Leave your favorite song in the comments; I'm fascinated to know. Mine, of course, is Mambo No. 5. And, as we say in my hometown, don't forget to be awesome.

Afternoon Map
The Most Popular Infomercial Product in Each State

You don't have to pay $19.95 plus shipping and handling to discover the most popular infomercial product in each state: AT&T retailer All Home Connections is giving that information away for free via a handy map.

The map was compiled by cross-referencing the top-grossing infomercial products of all time with Google Trends search interest from the past calendar year. So, which crazy products do people order most from their TVs?

Folks in Arizona know that it's too hot there to wear layers; that's why they invest in the Cami Secret—a clip-on, mock top that gives them the look of a camisole without all the added fabric. No-nonsense New Yorkers are protecting themselves from identity theft with the RFID-blocking Aluma wallet. Delaware's priorities are all sorted out, because tons of its residents are still riding the Snuggie wave. Meanwhile, Vermont has figured out that Pajama Jeans are the way to go—because who needs real pants?

Unsurprisingly, the most popular product in many states has to do with fitness and weight loss, because when you're watching TV late enough to start seeing infomercials, you're probably also thinking to yourself: "I need to get my life together. I should get in shape." Seven states—Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, Utah, and Wisconsin—have invested in the P90X home fitness system, while West Virginia and Arkansas prefer the gentler workout provided by the Shake Weight. The ThighMaster is still a thing in Illinois and Washington, while Total Gym and Bowflex were favored by South Dakota and Wyoming, respectively. 

Kitchen items are clearly another category ripe for impulse-buying: Alabama and North Dakota are all over the George Forman Grill; Alaska and Rhode Island are mixing things up with the Magic Bullet; and Floridians must be using their Slice-o-matics to chop up limes for their poolside margaritas.

Cleaning products like OxiClean (D.C. and Hawaii), Sani Sticks (North Carolina), and the infamous ShamWow (which claims the loyalty of Mainers) are also popular, but it's Proactiv that turned out to be the big winner. The beloved skin care system claimed the top spot in eight states—California, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas—making it the most popular item on the map.

Peep the full map above, or check out the full study from All Home Connections here.

A Florida Brewery Created Edible Six-Pack Rings to Protect Marine Animals

For tiny scraps of plastic, six-pack rings can pose a huge threat to marine life. Small enough and ubiquitous enough that they’re easy to discard and forget about, the little plastic webs all too often make their way to the ocean, where animals can ingest or become trapped in them. In order to combat that problem, Florida-based Saltwater Brewery has created what they say is the world’s first fully biodegradable, compostable, edible six-pack rings.

The edible rings are made of barley and wheat and are, if not necessarily tasty, at least safe for animals and humans to ingest. Saltwater Brewery started packaging their beers with the edible six-pack rings in 2016. They charge slightly more for their brews to offset the cost of the rings' production. They hope that customers will be willing to pay a bit more for the environmentally friendly beers and are encouraging other companies to adopt the edible six-pack rings in order to lower manufacturing prices and save more animals.

As Saltwater Brewery president Chris Gove says in the video above: “We want to influence the big guys and kind of inspire them to also get on board.”


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