How does our brain create our musical tastes?

In 2015, Spotify published an online interactive map of music tastes by city. In this list, we explored listeners’ tastes: in New York, The Chainsmokers take the lead, Jeanne adds in Paris and Nantes, and Yul in Marseille. We know that musical tastes evolve over time, regions, and even between social groups. However, when we are born, our brains are very similar. So what is going on in our brain and affecting our taste in music so much?

When we listen to music, our brain constantly predicts what will happen next; These expectations vary depending on where you come from. In addition, listening to new music generates neural plasticity (the brain’s ability to create, cancel, or reorganize neural networks and their connections) which allows us to better predict music of a similar type.

However, the way we predict musical events directly affects the pleasure and emotions we feel, as well as certain cognitive abilities such as memory and attention. Thus, the music we are exposed to during our lives influences the way we anticipate and appreciate new music.

Emotions, a prediction story

We just published a study titled “Music of Silence: Part Two: Listening to Music Stimulates Picture Responses,” which shows that our brain is constantly predicting the next note while listening to melodies, without us even realizing it. In musical participants, it is possible to ask them to sing the musical note they expected and relate it to what we see in the brain, but for non-musical participants, it is an unconscious mechanism. As each note is heard, the prediction is intertwined with the note that is actually being played. This results in a “prediction error,” a type of neural score that measures how well the brain predicts that observation.

As early as 1956, Leonard Mayer, an American composer and musicologist, noted that musical sentiments resulted from the satisfaction and frustration of listeners’ expectations. Since then, many developments have appeared in this work and it has become possible to describe the relationship between expectations and other, more complex feelings. For example, the ability to memorize sequences of notes is much better when participants have a good ability to predict the notes for those sequences.

It is also possible to break down simple emotions (such as joy, sadness, and nervousness) into two basic dimensions: valence and psychological activation. These two dimensions correspond, respectively, to how positive the emotion is (sadness versus joy) and how exciting the emotion is (boredom versus anger). A combination of these two scales makes it possible to identify simple feelings. Two studies, from 2013 and 2018, showed that if participants were asked to record these two dimensions on sliders, there was a clear relationship between prediction error and emotional dimensions. For example, the worst expected evaluations generate feelings with greater psychological arousal.

In the history of cognitive neuroscience, pleasure has often been associated with the reward system and especially with learning. Thus, studies were able to show that dopaminergic neurons react with prediction error. This allows, among other things, to learn to predict the environment around us. It is not yet clear whether pleasure begets learning or learning begets pleasure, but there is no doubt that the two are linked. This is also the case for music.

In fact, when listening to music, the moderately anticipated events are those that generate the most pleasure. In other words, events that are very simple, predictable, and which do not necessarily lead to learning, generate little pleasure – and the same is true of very complex events. On the other hand, the events in between, which are complex enough to be interesting, but also consistent enough with our predictions to be orderly, are those that generate the most pleasure.

The importance of our origin

However, the way we anticipate musical events is inseparable from our musical culture. For example, researchers went to meet with members of the Sami people, which stretches from northern Sweden to northern Kola Peninsula in Russia. Their traditional music, called “joic”, is very different from Western music and had little contact with Western culture.

“Goek Beira Beira” (traditional music of the Sami people).

In this study, Sami, Finnish and European musicians (from different countries not familiar with joik) were asked to listen to different extracts from joiks they did not know and sing the last note removed from the previous one. Not all participants in each group provided the same answer, but some assessments were more representative than others within each group.

What is very interesting is that these distributions are very different between groups and that the Sami are the best at predicting the note that was actually in the piece, followed by the Finns, who were more exposed to Sami music than the participants than the rest. From Europe. This shows that our musical culture (the music we have been exposed to during our lives) influences how we anticipate unknown musical events.

A similar cadence study was conducted with American participants and the Chiman people in the Bolivia Amazon. This study shows that American and Shimanese participants perceive rhythms in a radically different way, but also that American professional musicians and non-musical American participants perceive rhythms in an almost identical way. This makes it possible to imagine that the way we predict (and thus perceive) music depends on what we have been negatively exposed to during our lives, no matter what music we have been working hard on.

You can learn a new culture by being exposed to it

This thus raises the question of culture learning, which is commonly referred to as the ‘inculturation process’. In music, time can be divided differently. Western music generally divides time into four (as in a rock dance, this is the most common division) or into three (as in a waltz). But other musical cultures divide time into what Western music theory calls “unequal bars.” Balkan music, for example, is known for using asymmetrical time signatures, such as nine rhythms or seven rhythms.

A 2005 study consists of popular melodies with symmetrical or asymmetrical bars. Then, melodies were presented to the participants and incidents (more or less rhythm in a certain place) were presented. This study shows that infants younger than 6 months of age spent the same amount of time staring at a screen during collisions when presented with symmetric and asymmetrical measurements. In contrast, 12-month-olds spent more time looking at the screen during collisions at symmetric scales than at asymmetric scales. This indicates that they are more surprised when the incident falls on a symmetric scale, because they understand that there is a disturbance in a structure that they already know.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers asked newborns to listen to music from the Balkans (in unequal scales) at home with a CD. After a week of listening, they repeated the experiment and this time the newborns spent equal amounts of time staring at the screen during collisions on the symmetric and asymmetric measurements. This means that passive listening to Balkan music built an internal representation of the musical scale, allowing them to predict the structure and thus detect accidents in both types of meters.

The same experiment was conducted with adults and asked to disclose accidents. A 2010 study shows a very similar effect, not of rhythm, but of tones in adults. Therefore, these experiments show that passive exposure to music makes it possible to generate learning of the musical structures of a culture. It is inculturation.

We have seen in this article that passive listening to music can change the way we expect musical structures when listening to new songs. However, we have also seen that the way listeners predict musical structures changes drastically between cultures and distorts their perception, causing them to experience pleasure and emotions differently.

Even if much research remains to be done to understand, among other things, the influence of social influences and individual sensibilities on these mechanisms, these studies give us a way to understand the diversity of musical tastes: our musical culture (defined by the music we’ve listened to in our lives) distorts Our perception makes us prefer certain pieces over others because of the similarity (or difference) with pieces we already know.

This article has been republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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