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Exploring the Science of Sound

Our emotional connection to music is so integral to what makes life worth living that we rarely stop to think about why this is, or question the mechanics behind it. What exactly is it about music that can bring us to tears in one track, to pure joy in the next?

Together, Ford and VICE are exploring how and why music has this effect on us. Rooted in research with listeners, experts, scientists and musicians, our upcoming series of films will look at how these musical insights and sonic devices are used to, in effect, hack the emotional responses of listeners.

The science of sound and music is enthralling; that unique spot where physics, psychology, and neuroscience meet. Marcel Breker, Audio Systems Specialist at Ford, has been examining these disciplines to help create the perfect in-car sound system with B&O PLAY for the new Fiesta. After building this experience from the ground up, he’s keen to point out how the use of physics is there to serve an emotional purpose. “We love how the system reproduces every emotion that’s carried through the music. When I get goosebumps I know we did it right”.

But why exactly does music affect us emotionally? After all, sound is just vibrating air – why would this mean so much to us? Advances in neuroscience have started to reveal patterns in brain activity that help us understand what’s going on. There are small sections of the brain, the dorsal and ventral striatum, that release dopamine when we hear music that affects us emotionally. Dopamine is basically our brain’s free gift, part of the interior reward system behind so many of our impulses. Whether it’s sky-diving or eating chocolate, dopamine is the chemical that brings the feeling.

With music though, it’s a little more complicated, and these complications instantly bring into focus music’s foundational techniques.  From tempo, through to volume and timbre, both listener and composer know that the right piece of music contains an element - however small - of surprise. It’s in upending our expectations that music flatters our brains into giving us that little neurochemical reward. That off-the-shelf library hold-music we endure when we’re calling the bank is so mind-numbingly, teeth-gratingly terrible because it's so predictable. But in a different context, expertly presented in counterpoint, those same sounds and rhythms can be overflowing with emotion.

Brandon Wheeler from audio technology partners Harman explains that this sense of emotion has been integral to the B&O PLAY development process. “Music is the universal language that makes our brain light up with emotion, creation and liveliness”. MRI scans are now showing how this sense of our neurons ‘lighting up’ happens throughout the duration of a piece of music. We don't just get a hit of dopamine at the moment of musical climax: our brains are stimulated by anticipation, as we mentally fast-forward to the arrival of the 'good bit'.  We’re searching for patterns in the music, and want those patterns fulfilled in an emotionally satisfying and intelligent way.  Our primal neural networks, it seems, are extremely exacting music critics.

On a more basic level, we all know how choosing the right music at the right moment can help with everything from relaxation to concentration. Science is now backing this up with hard data. One scientific study focused on whether music can act as a performance enhancer for runners. Analysing the effect of tempo and volume, it showed that if music was incorporated into warming up, athletes performed better than without listening to any music at all. More complex than this, another study showed that pupils’ attainment at mathematics improved if they were played the right tracks while learning.

The study of how we engage with music throws into sharp relief the delicate balance of physiology and psychology at the heart of the human condition. Fascinatingly, after listening to a track for around three minutes our hearts begin to mimic or respond to its rhythm. This is a biological process known as entrainment. This effect is proven to be able to reduce anxiety and lower our heart rate and blood pressure. The take-away here is that sound and music can provide a sense of emotional balance and equilibrium on both a mental and physical level. 

Ford’s engineer Marcel Breker tells us that incorporating this sense of emotional balance into the B&O PLAY system in the Fiesta was always his end goal. This was galvanized by the knowledge that more drivers than ever are streaming music on the go. Marcel explains that cars are an acoustic space with “unique challenges in terms of the way sound travels within the cabin”. Brandon Wheeler from Harman agrees, “the audio interacts not only with reflections from surfaces in the vehicle but also with the trim that the speakers are integrated into”. Add in road noise and atmospheric conditions and the engineering teams were presented with a distinct set of engineering conundrums.

The team’s excitement was in being presented with a blank canvas. As a new Fiesta, the integration of the B&O PLAY system started from the genesis of the car’s development. This enabled the engineers to truly create a sound system of equal quality to that which we enjoy at home. From the perfect positioning of its speakers, to optimally tuning them for the benefit of each passenger, this is a system that elevates the nature of in-car audio dynamics. With the cars now rolling off the production line, the thousands of man-hours behind this project are coming to fruition as drivers can now enjoy unsurpassed audio in the real world.

So next time you get caught singing along to that guilty pleasure, remember it’s not your fault: it’s a complex balance of advanced audio technology and neurological processes over which you have no control.


To find out more about new Fiesta with B&O PLAY Sound System, visit here.