The Neuroscience Behind Lyrical Ambivalence


If you have ever exposed your soul in your lyrics for your ingenuity to largely be ignored, undoubtedly, you will have felt a twinge of begrudging creative futility. I wouldn’t blame you if you dubbed your audience philistines and vowed to never write for them again.

The same goes for the music journalists who skate on the surface of a song and throw adjectives at the instrumental arrangements before banging on about how it is reminiscent of another band that they saw in the 70s/80s/90s; instead of taking the plunge and delving into the expressive depths.

The marginally good news is that there is a solid scientific reason why some music fans tend to tune out to your lyrical philosophy and poetry and focus on musicality with a more casual listen.

I’m not talking about the Myers-Briggs bullshit that claims you see the world through a logical framework if you only listen to lyrics, and you are more of an empathetic and intuitive person if you listen to the instrumental arrangements. Get into the sea and take your cod psychology with you with that one!

The New Scientist has a far more logical explanation of how lyrics and tunes diverge in the brain. The contextualisation of lyricism is a more complicated process – not an automatic response to hearing lyricism.

The Neuroscience Behind Listening to Music

As neuroscience has had some catching up to do with other scientific disciplines in recent years, it can be forgiven for still being slightly perplexed on the issue of how music moves through our messy slab of grey meat.

While some argue that our brains process words and music separately because people with aphasia can’t speak but can hum a melody. Others believe that as language and music activate the same areas in the brain, they may be received as the same signal.

A recent study revolving around functional MRI brain scans of people listening to songs put weight behind both claims. Before the study, the research team knew neural responses decrease when exposed to the same stimuli repeatedly. Effectively, our neurons become lazy when we’re not giving them fresh stimuli to snack on. Sammler, a lead neuroscientist in the study, experimented with altering the lyrics, the tune, and both proponents to check where the decline in neural responses lay.

After the study, she concluded that the superior temporal sulcus (STS) processes lyrics and music and deals with the components differently. Initially, the music and lyrics are processed together. Following that initial stage of neural activity, the processing becomes more complex as the mind needs to understand what the lyrics convey. The more the language and music are processed, the more separate they become. Sammler argued that the decline in activity in the mid-STS would differ if both elements were processed individually and simultaneously.

In simpler terms, her conclusion means that it isn’t all so cut and dry if someone can listen to a song and be oblivious to the lyrical context. Especially if they didn’t hit play to prise every piece of information from the lyrics and attempt to construct a clear picture from the often very abstract imagery portrayed. As further proof, think of how easy it is to contextualise lyrics if you are reading them instead of listening to them against music.

How Our Relationship with Music Affects Our Sensory Experience of it

Just as there are different music genres, there are several music utilities. From ritualistic utility to communal entertainment. From communication to it being what you listen to on the train so you don’t have to hear someone cacophonously tearing their way through the biggest bag of Walkers crisps they could find before they hopped onboard.

My own music appreciation journey began as a means of visceral feeling and connection. As an angsty teen glued to Kerrang TV, the words of My Chemical Romance and Linkin Park naturally resonated with me. Although my music tastes may have matured over the years, I’ve never veered away from the artists revered for their compelling lyricism. On that note, I’ve also never gotten over the irony of no one realising that Chester Bennington was capable of suicide when he so clearly outlined his mental anguish in pretty much EVERY one of the songs he wrote. Nor will I forgive the journalists that tore into him for the last album he wrote before he killed himself in 2017. Not that I believe that the 1-star review posted by the NME was complicit in his death. It is just an apt representation of how easily we disregard lyrical contributions to snob all over a soundscape.

The activism within Bikini Kill. The socialist existentialism of The Holy Bible from The Manic Street Preachers. The lofty romanticism of The Smiths. The devilishly insidious mind of Nick Cave. No sonic motif, progression or amalgamation could ever move me in the way words do.

As much as a crystal-clear production euphonically resounds in my ears. As clever as I think the complex time signatures in math rock are. As hair-raising as an orchestral crescendo is. Nothing will ever come close to hearing words arranged in a way that allows me to hear thoughts I’ve only heard in my mind or words that send shivers through the boundaries of my perceptions.

For others, it is the musicality that draws them in. The need for a dopamine rush. The identity motive that gives way to cultural tribalism. The aesthetic pleasure of listening to a certain song. The wistful grip of nostalgia that leaves you inclined to search YouTube for the songs you heard on the radio when you left college. The songs introduced by older family members.

There is no right or wrong way to listen to music (to imply that would be very gatekeepery!), and I am certainly not insinuating my active proclivity to sniff out lyrical poetry makes me a superior listener. However, for artists, it is worth bearing in mind that when your lyrical candour gets little to no commentary, that is just how music fans are wired – literally. For music fans and journalists, a semblance of mindfulness in how we connect with music wouldn’t go amiss.


Article by Amelia Vandergast

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