How Our Brain Makes Us Like Music (or Not)

At 2O15, Spotify publishes 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 Marseilles. 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 goes on in our brains and affects our taste in music so much?

When we listen to music, our brain constantly predicts what will happen next. These predictions vary depending on where we come from. Listening to new music generates neural plasticity (the brain’s ability to create, cancel, or rearrange neural networks and their connections) that allows us to better predict new music. of the same 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 showing that our brain is constantly predicting the next note while listening to melodies, without us even realizing it. It is possible to ask the musical participants to sing the note they expected and relate it to what we see in the brain, for the non-musical participants it is an unconscious mechanism. As each note is heard, the anticipation is mixed with the tone that is actually playing, creating a file prediction error. A type of neural score that measures how well our brain predicts this 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 divide simple emotions (such as joy, sadness, nervousness) into two basic dimensions: parity And the psychological stimulation. These two dimensions correspond, respectively, to how positive the emotion is (sadness versus joy) and how exciting the emotion is (boredom versus anger). Thus, the combination of these two scales makes it possible to identify simple feelings. Two studies from 2018 and 2013 show that if participants are asked to score these two dimensions on sliders, there is 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 most moderately anticipated events are those that generate the most pleasure. In other words, very simple, predictable events, which do not necessarily lead to learning, generate little pleasure, and the same is true for 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.

These predictions depend on 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 who stretch from northern Sweden to northern Kola Peninsula. Their traditional music, called Yoiks, is very different from Western music and has had little contact with Western culture.

Dans cette étude, il a été demandé à des musiciens samis, Finlandais et européens (de divers pays non-familiers avec les Yoiks) d’écouter différents extraits de yoiks qu’ils ne connaissaient pas la et de quini levé èter advance. 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 exposed to Sami music more than the participants from the rest of 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 study was conducted on rhythm with American participants and the Tsimanés in the Bolivia Amazon. This study shows that American and Tsimane participants perceive rhythms in a radically different way, but also that American professional musicians and non-musical American participants perceive rhythms in nearly identical ways. This makes it possible to imagine that the way we predict (and thus perceive) music depends on the music we have been negatively exposed to during our lives, regardless of the 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 a processinculturation. For example, in music, time can be divided differently. Western music generally divides time into 4 (as in rock dance, it is the most common division) or into 3 times (as in waltz). However, other musical cultures divide time into what they call Western music theory unequal measures. Balkan music, for example, is known for using asymmetric scales such as 9 beats or 7 beats. A 2005 study composed folk melodies with symmetrical or asymmetrical bars.

Then present these melodies to the participants by presenting accidents (more or less rhythm in a certain place). 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 were even more surprised when the accident occurred to a symmetrical extent because they realized there was a disturbance in a structure they already knew about.

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 the same amount of time looking at the screen during collisions on symmetric and asymmetrical measurements. This means that passive listening to Balkan music built an internal representation of the musical scale that allowed 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. Finally, a 2010 study shows a very similar effect, not of rhythm, but of tones in adults. Thus these experiences show that passive exposure to music makes it possible to generate learning of the musical structures of a culture. This is called 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 by making them feel 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.

The original version of this article was published in dialoguea non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas between academic experts and the general public.

read more:

  • From Parkinson’s disease to brain damage, the therapeutic value of music has been confirmed

  • Early learning of music: an advantage to becoming a good reader

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