Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Contact with the new and returning to the familiar are common occurrences among listeners of music. During the course of an average day and through the duration of an average life, a person is exposed to countless doses of music. Music is all around: on television, online, on the radio, on cellphones, in the grocery store, in children’s mouths, in our own heads. Previously unheard material is always within access, whether it comes to us through active consumption or passive reception. And, because music is such a longstanding and boundlessly varied form of expression, no pair of ears will ever hear it all.
There is some attraction in music’s apparent infiniteness. The appetite for the exotic, which exists in most people to a greater or lesser degree, can always feed upon new musical flavors. Yet, while much is gained from nibbling on diverse sounds, listeners eventually return to playlists of a much smaller size and scope. These individualized compilations are as distinct as the people who treasure them, and include selections of personal significance. The pleasure and assurance derived from such music is immediate, reliable and profound. It is audible comfort food.
Furthering the culinary analogy, the pull of familiar music has been likened to a hungry American traveling abroad. Native eateries have a certain appeal, offering unusual recipes and a doorway into local folkways. But for many tourists, restaurants serving familiar dishes are even more alluring. When navigating strange surroundings, the taste of home can simulate a sense of stability. A McDonald’s hamburger helps to “normalize” cities as disparate and anxiety inducing as Paris and Hong Kong.
The same occurs each time a person hears well-liked music. Recognizable sound patterns mitigate the complexities and uncertainties of existence. Of course, personal preference is the determining factor regulating which sounds bring this relief. But the effect is rooted much deeper than taste.
Researchers observe that when foreign noises are introduced into a wild biome, animals exhibit restlessness and other signs of distress. Once natural sounds are restored to purity, the reactions fade away. In a similar and similarly basic way, the music we cherish provides an antidote to unwelcome noises, both literal and metaphorical. Having a special attachment to certain sounds is less about stubbornness or a fear of change, and more about seeking refuge from the clutter and stress that confront us daily. Our curiosity appreciates the exotic, but our nerves rely on the familiar.
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