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Neuroscience has identified why some works of art become universal phenomenons

Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton
Reuters/Lucas Jackson
Hard to resist.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

What music we love is usually a matter of personal taste. But there are some works of art that seem to transcend differences in personal aesthetics and rise to universal acclaim. Over the past 18 months, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical Hamilton has emerged as one such cultural phenomenon.

What is it about Hamilton that resonates so broadly? Psychology and neuroscience suggest that the magic formula for universal acclaim often comes down to a simple equation: take something familiar, and combine it with something that feels entirely new.

With or without formal musical training, most people gain an informal education in the musical patterns typical to our culture as we grow up. Lullabies, pop songs on the radio, symphonies sampled on Looney Tunes, and middle-school jazz band practice train our ears to recognize common themes. In this way, we develop expectations about musical rhythms and the way they make use of consonance (pleasant, calming sounds) and dissonance (sounds that lead to tension or irritation).

This familiarity also means that we’re able to anticipate musical changes. When we hear a new song, we can usually predict the introduction of the chorus after an eight-bar verse or a high note at the end of the bridge. Therefore elements of musical surprise—such as novel lyrics, clever harmonic changes, or an unanticipated breakdown—literally excite our brain. According to a 1999 paper by neuroscientist Anne Blood and colleagues, these types of musical surprises elicit heightened activity in the brain’s auditory and frontal regions, where tonality is tracked and interpreted. Pleasant music is shown to cause increased activation in the medial rostral prefrontal cortex—a region used to self-monitor our emotional and mental states, or those of others. This suggests that when music gives us a pleasant surprise, it helps promote the feeling that all is right with the world.

But just because we find a piece of music novel doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll enjoy it. Humans prefer our stimuli to strike the perfect balance between simplicity and familiarity on one hand, and complexity and novelty on the other. This is because humans and other animals have evolved to feel an arousing mixture of fear and curiosity in the presence of new things.

When an encounter is sufficiently rewarding, we experience what neurobiologists Kent Berridge and Morten Kringelbach call “core liking”—a physiologically pleasant feeling that influences our future judgments and actions, motivating us to revisit the experience. Core liking depends on our appetites for cognitive effort as well as the amount of stimulation we find pleasant. For example, psychologist Philip A. Russell pointed out that once exposure to a popular song hits our personal saturation point, we limit how often we hear it. Novel items require more cognitive effort—but we’re willing to make the effort in those categories that interest us.

Hamilton’s monumental success, therefore, can be attributed to its unique combination of the familiar and the novel. Its musical foundation is hip-hop—a genre that has dominated popular music for a few decades now. But it’s quite unusual to see hip-hop applied to material straight out of history books. And so when we hear Marquis de Lafayette beat-boxing, or listen to the story of the battle of Yorktown overlaid against a chorus inspired by Mary J. Blige, the recognizable elements trigger a release of dopamine in the basal ganglia’s caudate nucleus (a part of our brain that helps control attachments). Meanwhile, the novelty of the music engages the nucleus accumbens, the reward-seeking part of our brain. In other words, the juxtaposition of musical novelty and familiarity is more likely to engage the brain’s reward system, according to findings from neuroscientist Valerie Salimpoor and her colleagues.

Psychology can also help us understand the appeal of Hamilton’s exuberant energy, as communicated by the musical’s modern groove and urgent rap vocals. These features push us to listen to its lyrics much in the same way we did when we were teenagers. Research suggests that this phenomenon is especially powerful in adolescence. Social psychologists Morris Holbrook and Robert Schindler note that imprinting, the process by which young animals form strong and irreversible attachments to caregivers, is strongest during the critical period of our youth. Music’s faculty for mediating feelings may cause teens to imprint on songs that helped them through uncertain times.

As adolescents, we bond to music at an age when our curiosity about the world is immense and our experience is small. Lyrics help us solve problems, soothe heartaches, and match our powerfully oscillating emotions. Because Hamilton’s musical styling makes us feel like teens again, we listen to it with the same sense of urgency as we did when we were young. Moreover, Hamilton’s young characters, captured at a moment when their personalities and achievements were still being formed, may also remind us of ourselves at our most earnest, energetic, and least self-assured period—when we are most open to fresh influences and thoughts.

As we get older, and we form a personal prototype of what constitutes “good music,” we become harder to impress. Much of our personal filter has to do with sociocultural status. Social psychologists such as Pierre Bourdieu describe a “taste culture” whereby professionals and working-class music lovers are drawn to genres that match their self-image. These genres roughly correspond to our ideas about what constitutes “high art” and “low art.” But Hamilton takes a historically populist art form (hip-hop) and presents it on the traditionally “high brow” Broadway stage, thereby eschewing easy categorization and broadening its appeal. The added bonus is that the musical’s plot immerses us in an extraordinarily large and important context—the birth of the United States of America.

In all of these ways, Hamilton is precisely calibrated to push us to listen to its soundtrack with the passion that we bring to music as young listeners, and the intellectual curiosity of adults. By linking incredibly sophisticated yet familiar musical themes to stories that are novel to all but history buffs, Hamilton reminds us that our nation’s founders were once beginners—and helps all of us remember what it’s like to be young, scrappy, and hungry.

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