How Your Favorite Song Starts to Irritate You

Music gives pleasure because your mind keeps predicting what comes next,” writes Loretta Graziano Breuning. And it’s simple: each correct prediction triggers dopamine. If the music is unfamiliar, you don’t get the chemical. When it is somewhat familiar — you feel as if you want to tap your feet. However, when it is too familiar, your brain predicts what happens next effortlessly. And this doesn’t get you dopamine either.

So, as Loretta Graziano Breuning says, “to make you happy, music must be at the sweet spot of novelty and familiarity.” We’ll put it a bit differently: stop playing that song on the repeat! You’ll start hating it in few days.

The appreciation we have for music is related to our ability to learn the underlying structure of the music we like—the equivalent to grammar in spoken or signed languages—and to be able to make predictions about what will come next. Music is organized sound, but the organization has to involve some element of the unexpected or it is emotionally flat and robotic.

The Melbourne psych-rock septet have fed the past 50 years of rock history through a paper shredder and seamlessly taped the strands back together in intriguing new patterns. It’s never clear from the outset exactly which path they’ll explore or what sounds they’ll plop into the mix along the way. Horses neighing, xylophones, and instruments of unidentifiable origins have appeared in their songs, and, King Gizzard always manage to wrangle killer tunes.

The thrills we experience from music are the result of having our expectations artfully manipulated. If the ascending musical partial octave “do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-…” is heard. Listeners familiar with Western music will have a strong expectation to hear or provide one more note. Margulis’s model describes three distinct types of listener reactions, each derived from listener-experienced tension:· Surprise-Tension: · Denial-Tension: · Expectancy-Tension:


An important way that our brain deals with standard situations is that it extracts those elements that are common to multiple situations and creates a framework within which to place them; this framework is called a schema.

Schemas inform a host of day-to-day interactions we have with the world. For example, we’ve been to a Concert we have a general notion — a schema — of what is common to concerts. The concert schema will be different for different cultures (as is music), and for people of different ages.

Schemata (pl. of schema) are “stock musical phrases” (Gjerdingen 2007, p. 6) that act as melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic/metric skeletons for passages of music in the Galant style. We can apply the term schema in three specific ways. First, a schema is a prototype — an idealized version of a common pattern. Second, a schema can be an exemplar — a single pattern that resembles the prototype. Third, a schema can be a theory — an explanation of a commonly occurring musical event. We understand an individual pattern (exemplar) as a version of an ideal general pattern (prototype), and that relationship helps us understand how that pattern is functioning within a particular passage of music .

Gjerdingen, Robert O

Our musical schema for Western music includes implicit knowledge of the scales that we be able to hold in memory. This latter memory may not have the same level of resolution as notes we’ve just heard, but it is necessary in order to establish a context.

Schema begin forming in the womb and are amended every time we listen to music. This is why Indian or Pakistani music, for example, sounds “strange” to us but it doesn’t sound strange to Indians and Pakistanis, and it doesn’t sound strange to infants. By the age of five, infants recognize chord progressions in the music of their culture.

Style is just another word for “repetition.”. We recognize when we are hearing something we’ve heard before. The standard popular song has phrases that are four or eight measures long, this is a part of the schema we’ve developed for late twentieth-century popular songs.This include a vocabulary of genres and styles, as well as of eras (1970s music sounds unlike from 1930s music), rhythms, chord progressions, phrase structure (how many measures to a phrase), how long a song is, and what notes typically come after what.

Take, for example, the opening 12-minute chunk comprising the four song stretch of “I’m in Your Mind” to “I’m in Your Mind Fuzz”. The rhythm section — bassist Lucas Skinner, drummers Michael Cavanagh and Eric Moore — stay locked in the same groove across all four songs while the guitars, harmonica, and Mackenzie’s vocals explore various melodies within that structure — different movements operating in the same theme.

Deceptive Cadence

Deceptive cadences refer to a particular pattern of chords in which the chord built on the fifth scale degree, which usually resolves to the first scale degree, instead proceeds to the sixth scale degree. This may be expressed in roman numerals as follows:

Authentic: V-I
Deceptive V-vi (or, less commonly, V-bVI)

One of the defining characteristics of a deceptive cadence is the aural anticipation of tonic following the dominant chord. That expectation is then thwarted, thus the term “deceptive”. King Gizzard’ “Crumbling Castle” ends on the V chord (the fifth degree of the scale we’re in) and we wait for a resolution that never comes—at least not in that song. But the very next song on Polygondwanaland starts with the very chord we were waiting to hear.

The setting up and then manipulating of expectations is the heart of music, and it is accomplished in countless ways. King Gizzard does it by playing songs that are essentially the blues (with blues structure and chord progressions) but by adding unusual harmonies + Phrygian scales to the chords that make them sound very unblues.”

Like the euphoric peaks of 1970s-era Yes or the melodic sections of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s, a solid first impression and a memorable farewell. Syncopated drumming and clean guitar scales part ways for bandleader Stu Mackenzie and his gentle voice. The song’s rumination on fragility parallels the backing guitars harmonize with one another, a flute solo fades in, and barely-discernable keyboards whirr in the distance. Then, in the song’s final minute, the band trades that for a wall of stoner-metal sludge.

Miles Davis and John Coltrane made careers out of reharmonizing blues progressions to give them new sounds that were anchored partly in the familiar and partly in the exotic. On Sketches from East Brusnick , they have songs with blues/funk rhythms that lead us to expect the standard blues chord progression, but the entire song is played on only one chord, never moving from that harmonic position.


Research on which this is based was performed on right-handed people. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, people who are left-handed (approximately 5 to 10 percent of the population) or ambidextrous sometimes have the same brain organization as right- handers, but more often have a different brain organization.

When the brain organization is different. Such that functions are simply flipped to the opposite side. Left-handers have a neural organization that is different in ways that are not yet well documented. Writers, businessmen, and engineers refer to themselves as left-brain dominant, and artists, dancers, and musicians as right-brain dominant.

The popular conception that the left brain is analytical and the right brain is artistic has some merit, but is overly simplistic. Both sides of the brain engage in analysis and both sides in abstract thinking. All of these activities require coordination of the two hemispheres, although some of the particular functions involved are clearly lateralized.

Mckenzie often played guitar parts that are entirely novel, avoiding clichés. King gizzard’s guitar parts are unlike anyone else’s, and they wouldn’t even fit in anyone else’s songs. “The Wheel” from their album Gumboot Soup takes this rhythmic play to such an extreme it can be hard to tell where the downbeat even is.

Modern composers such as Schönberg threw out the whole idea of expectation. The scales they used deprive us of the notion of a resolution, a root to the scale, or a musical “home,” thus creating the illusion of no home, a music adrift, perhaps as a metaphor for a twentieth-century existentialist existence (or just because they were trying to be contrary). We still hear these scales used in movies to accompany dream sequences to convey a lack of grounding, or in underwater or outer space scenes to convey weightlessness.

Daniel J Livitin


When the sounds reach the eardrum they get segregated by pitch. Not much later, speech and music probably diverge into separate processing circuits. The speech circuits decompose the signal in order to identify individual phonemes — the consonants and vowels that make up our alphabet. The music circuits start to decompose the signal and separately analyze pitch, timbre, contour, and rhythm.

The output of the neurons performing these tasks connects to regions that put all of it together and try to figure out if there is anything in our memory banks that can help to understand this signal. Have I heard this particular pattern before? If so, when? What does it mean? Is it part of a larger sequence whose meaning is unfolding right now in front of me?

As tones unfold sequentially, they lead us — our brains and our minds — to make predictions about what will come next. These predictions are the essential part of musical expectations. But how to study the brain basis of these?

The structural processing — musical syntax — has been localized to the frontal lobes of both hemispheres in areas overlapping with those regions that process speech syntax, and shows up regardless of whether listeners have musical training. The regions involved in musical semantics — associating a tonal sequence with meaning — appear to be in the back portions of the temporal lobe on both sides, near Wernicke’s area.

The brain’s music system appears to operate with functional independence from the language system — When portions of his left cortex deteriorated, the composer Ravel selectively lost his sense of pitch while retaining his sense of timbre, a deficit that inspired his writing of Bolero, a piece that emphasizes variations in timbre.

Daniel J Levitin

The close proximity of music and speech processing in the frontal and temporal lobes, and their partial overlap, suggests that those neural circuits that become recruited for music and language may start out life undifferentiated.

Babies may see the number five as red, taste cheddar cheeses in D-flat, and smell roses in triangles

The process of maturation creates distinctions in the neural pathways as connections are cut or pruned. What may have started out as a neuron cluster that responded equally to sights, sound, taste, touch, and smell becomes a specialized network. With increasing experience and exposure, the developing infant eventually creates dedicated music pathways and dedicated language pathways. The pathways may share some common resources.


Like The Dark Side of the Moon, Nonagon Infinity is constructed as an infinite loop, meaning its final notes connect perfectly with the album’s opening. The record is mixed to feel like a continuous 41-minute live performance, complete with recurring musical and lyrical passages. Nonagon Infinity is an energetic, fast moving nonet of songs which constantly picks up speed that never takes a single break that, at the end of the final song, “Road Train” seemingly loops back into the first song “Robot Stop” thus forming an actual Nonagon (9 songs) Infinity. Weaving in and out of different melodic motifs while remaining locked (for the most part) into a propulsive, breakneck rhythm that sounds like Devo riffing on Hawkwind’s “Motorhead.”

Mackenzie’s psych-pop accessibility, as he spits out a stream of fragmented hooks like a jukebox of hook singles on an Autobahn of a record. The band also possess an innate sense of knowing just the right moment to switch things up, like with the loose Krautrock boogie that introduces “Mr. Beat,” or the twinned Allman Brothers leads dropped into the “TV Eye”-style surge of “Evil Death Roll,” or the Yes-worthy contoro-riffs that overtake “Invisible Face”.

In “Mr Beat,” the main melodic phrase is seven measures long; King Gizzard surprise us by violating one of the most basic assumptions of popular music, the four- or eight-measure phrase unit (nearly all rock/ pop songs have musical ideas that are organized into phrases of those lengths). In “The River,” King Gizzard violate expectations by first setting up a hypnotic, repetitive ending that sounds like it will go on forever; based on our experience with rock music and the classic fade-out. Instead, they end the song soloing in 4/4.

King Gizzard have made a career out of violating rhythmic expectations. The standard rhythmic convention in rock is to have a strong backbeat on beats two and four. Gizzard music turns this around by using 3/4, 5/4, 6/4, 6/8, 7/4, 7/8, 9/8, 11/8, 13/8 putting the snare drum on beats one and two, and a guitar on two and four. It’s a new sound that fulfilled some and violated other rhythmic expectations simultaneously.

We were talking about this the other day — our minds are in seven, so that feels like the normal time. 4/4 feels weird.

But I remember a huge change or shift was definitely [2016’s] Nonagon Infinity — learning the stuff live was like, Holy shit, I’ve got to get better. For me, the endurance thing of having to do 16ths the whole show was, like, impossible. I definitely struggled in the first couple tours, but then you just get better from touring, I guess.

Eric Moore

During the song “Nuclear Fusion,” and Altered Beast Part IV Eric, holds down the 8th notes on the hi-hat, and Michael, plays the off beats.

Eric: I always make Cavs play the inside out [off] beats, and I play straight. [laughs]

Eric Moore


The brain constructs its own version of reality

The brain constructs its own version of reality, based only in part on what is there, and in part on how it interprets the tones we hear as a function of the role they play in a learned musical system. In Language there is nothing intrinsically catlike about the word cat or even any of its syllables. We have learned that this collection of sounds represents the feline house pet.

Similarly, we have learned that certain sequences of tones go together, and we expect them to continue to do so. We expect certain pitches, rhythms, timbres, and so on to co-occur based on a statistical analysis our brain has performed of how often they have gone together in the past.

So what is the brain holding in its neurons that represents the world around us? The brain represents all music and all other aspects of the world in terms of mental or neural codes.

Flying Microtonal Banana (2017) recalls Krautrock. The standout feature of this album is the use of microtones which is a music interval that’s smaller than a semitone that are rarely, if ever heard in Western Music. To use microtones, special instruments have to be made. The album opens with the repetitive but strangely hypnotic Rattlesnake and then

“Melting” combines rhythms from ’70s Nigeria with observations on the present-day Arctic (“Toxic air is/Here to scare us/Fatal fumes from/Melting ferrous”). “Open Water” channels anxieties over disappearing coastlines into a marauding, seafaring-fantasy epic, like an updated “Immigrant Song” for Vikings who drive their ships to new lands only discover they’ve been swallowed by rising ocean levels.

But as the record rolls on, it starts to resemble an FM dial spun awry. Brief blasts of spaghetti-western balladry (“Billabong Valley”), acidic Southern blooze (“Anoxia”), and gritty Afro-funk (“Nuclear Fusion”) that are connected only by the chaotic harmonica and zurna bursts. And it becomes increasingly clear that the only difference between a three-minute King Gizzard track and a seven-minute one is where they arbitrarily decide to fade out (sometimes mid-chorus).


We have to reject the intuitively appealing idea that the brain is storing an accurate and strictly isomorphic representation of the world. To some degree, it is storing perceptual distortions, illusions, and extracting relationships among elements. It is computing a reality for us, one that is rich in complexity and beauty.

A basic piece of evidence for such a view is the simple fact that light waves in the world vary along one dimension—wavelength—and yet our perceptual system treats color as two dimensional

Similarly with pitch: From a one-dimensional continuum of molecules vibrating at different speeds, our brains construct a rich, multidimensional pitch space with three, four, or even five dimensions (according to some models).

Life presents us with similar situations that differ only in details, and often those details are insignificant. Learning to read is an example. The feature extractors in our brain have learned to detect the essential and unvarying aspect of letters of the alphabet, and unless we explicitly pay attention, we don’t notice details such as the font that a word is typed in. Even though surface details are different, all these words are equally recognizable, as are their individual letters.


Melody is one of the primary ways that our expectations are controlled by composers. Music theorists have identified a principle called gap fill; in a sequence of tones, if a melody makes a large leap, either up or down, the next note should change direction. A typical melody includes a lot of stepwise motion, that is, adjacent tones in the scale. If the melody makes a big leap, theorists describe a tendency for the melody to “want” to return to the jumping-off point; this is another way to say that our brains expect that the leap was only temporary, and tones that follow need to bring us closer and closer to our starting point, or harmonic “home.”

On “D-Day,” for example, Brettin, Mackenzie, and multi-instrumentalist Joey Walker all play microtonal instruments on a musical theme that blurs the line between fusion, Moroccan folk, and Southern rock in the vein of the Allman Brothers. At several other points — “Countdown,” “The Spider and Me,” “Cranes, Planes, and Migraines” — Brettin and the band walk a slippery tightrope between blue-eyed soul, bass-popping funk, and swooning, sun-kissed indie rock.

Like its mouthful of a title, Polygondwanaland delivers songs that seep into one another for an immersive listen. The stirring, quiet percussion of “Inner Cell” tiptoes into “Loyalty” for a slow buildup, before it splashes into the punctuated vocals of “Horology,” a sea of guitar tapping and rich, warm woodwinds. As usual, transitions are key in King Gizzard’s work, Closing track “The Fourth Colour” opts for the same dazzling effect. After endless, bright guitar trills and a rhythmic drone, a risible drum fill prompts the band to wreak havoc in the song’s final minute, exploding with the psych rock frenzy of Flying Microtonal Banana or I’m in Your Mind Fuzz.

This is an illusion made possible by the many layers of translation and amalgamation going on, all of it invisible to us. This is what the neural code is like. Millions of nerves firing at different rates and different intensities, all of it invisible to us. We can’t feel our nerves firing; we don’t know how to speed them up, slow them down, turn them on when we’re having trouble getting started on a bleary-eyed morning, or shut them off so we can sleep at night.


When we say a neuron is firing, it is sending an electrical signal that causes the release of a neurotransmitter. Neuro-transmitters are chemicals that travel throughout the brain and bind to receptors attached to other neurons. Receptors and neurotransmitters can be thought of as locks and keys respectively. After a neuron fires, a neurotransmitter swims across that synapse to a nearby neuron, and when it finds the lock and binds with it, that new neuron starts to fire. Not all keys fit all locks; there are certain locks (receptors) that are de- signed to accept only certain neurotransmitters.

Generally, neurotransmitters cause the receiving neuron to fire or prevent it from firing. The neurotransmitters are then absorbed through a process called reuptake; without reuptake, the neurotransmitters would continue to stimulate or inhibit the firing of a neuron.

Because, well, you have millions of additional neurons which don’t really know what to do — so they invent themselves tasks.

Try to understand them: they got the way that they are by alarming you whether running away from lions is good for you. And now — there are no lions to run away from.

But, which are these happy brain chemicals?

Well, there are four.

First of all — dopamine. Or — the “I can get it” hormone. In the animal’s world, this is the chemical released when a tiger sees an eland it can catch. In your world — it’s the excitement you feel when you reward yourself a chocolate bar for dieting few hours.

Next — endorphin. Or — the “I’m feeling no pain” hormone. It’s the chemical which masks pain. So, when a gazelle is bitten by a lion, she is still capable of fighting back, because her brain releases endorphin, telling her “that bite mark’s not so serious now…” Of course it’s going to hurt afterward.

The third one — oxytocin. Or — the “I trust you” hormone. This one’s released when an animal is among its own kind. It feels protected — and knows that it can rely on those around it. But, you know this: you’ve felt its effect best that time your mother patiently took care of you when you were sick as a child.

Serotonin is the final chemical on our list. It’s the “I’m top dog” hormone. Or, in other words, the one which makes you strut so proudly!

Some neurotransmitters are used throughout the nervous system, and some only in certain brain regions and by certain kinds of neurons. Serotonin is produced in the brain stem and is associated with the regulation of mood and sleep. The new class of antidepressants, including Prozac and Zoloft, are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) because they inhibit the reuptake of serotonin in the brain, al- lowing whatever serotonin is already there to act for a longer period of time.

The precise mechanism by which this alleviates depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and mood and sleep disorders is not known. Dopamine is released by the nucleus accumbens and is involved in mood regulation and the coordination of movement. It is most famous for being part of the brain’s pleasure and reward system. When drug ad- dicts get their drug of choice, or when compulsive gamblers win a bet— even when chocoholics get cocoa—this is the neurotransmitter that is released. Its role—and the important role played by the nucleus accumbens—in music was unknown until 2005.

As is probably already apparent from these descriptions, all of these chemicals come with a caveat. For example, serotonin may make you feel isolated and result in frustration about your own uniqueness; oxytocin may result in herd behavior, and that helps no one.

Even if you’re an endorphin-addict causing yourself pain may debilitate you in a much more physical sense. Finally, dopamine is habituated pretty quickly, leaving you with a “been there/done that” feeling even about things you really like.

However, once it teaches you that something is good, it doesn’t bother to release the hormones anymore. Leaving you with a habit — but taking away the happiness from it.

There Are Unhappy Chemicals as Well

For example, cortisol. It’s a sweet little chemical which has helped you survive, by telling you what you shouldn’t do. However, nowadays, there are no risks — so it’s basically obsolete. But, it still transforms into stress — over utterly irrelevant matters.

With Quarters they didn’t drop a 30-minute improv jam and called that an album. Whether it was released by a ATO, a small Aussie indie like Flightless, or, well, you, each of their 2017 releases is an elaborately constructed, carefully considered statement that opened up new vistas to the multiverse for the listeners and the band to explore.

Where the vocals in a given King Gizzard song tend to mimic the pattern of the main guitar riff/rhythm in mantric repetition, here, it’s the other way around. Keyboardist Ambrose Kenny-Smith’s tries swinging cocktail-lounge pop of “The Last Oasis,” gently engulfing the song in an aquatic whirl. What’s more, the fantastic, hallucinogenic delicate“Begginers’s Luck” is so captivating, you could be excused for a celebration of greed, as opposed to a preventative moral story for unchecked avarice.

“Great Chain of Being” verges on heavy-metal parody (“I usurp the precious stones/I have come to take the throne/I transcend the natural flesh/I will lay your god to rest”) like dispatches from the Oval Office.

The appreciation we have for music is related to our ability to learn the underlying structure of the music we like — the equivalent to grammar in spoken or signed languages — and to be able to make predictions about what will come next. Music is organized sound, but the organization has to involve some element of the unexpected or it is emotionally flat and robotic.



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