Summary: Music can evoke a range of emotions and help us better understand different cultures. But what makes us sing some songs more than others? Researchers say that when we listen to a song, our brain predicts what will happen next, and that prediction determines whether we like or dislike the song.
A few years ago, Spotify published an interactive online map of their music preferences, organized by city. At that time, Jeanne Added succeeded in Paris and Nantes, and London was part of the hip hop duo of Krept and Kronan. Music preferences have been found to vary over time, by region and by social group.
However, most minds are born the same, so what happens to them that causes us to decide to like different music?
Emotions – a story of foretelling
If someone gives you an unfamiliar song and stops it suddenly, you may be able to sing a note that you think is appropriate. At least, certified musicians can! In a study published in Journal of Neuroscience in September 2021, we show that the same predictive processes occur in the brain every time we listen to music, even without our being aware of it.
Those estimates are generated in the auditory cortex and combined with the note actually heard, resulting in a “prediction error”. We used this prediction error as a kind of neural score to measure how well the brain can predict the next note in a piece of music.
Back in 1956, the US composer and musicologist Leonard Meyer argued that emotion can be induced in music by a sense of satisfaction or disappointment arising from the listener’s expectations. Since then, academic advances have helped identify links between musical expectations and other, more complex emotions.
For example, participants in one study were able to memorize tone sequences better if they could first correctly guess the internal notes.
Now, basic emotions (for example, joy, sadness or anger) can be divided into two basic levels, valence and brain function, which measure, respectively, how positive an emotion is (eg, sadness versus happiness) and how pleasant it is (boredom versus anger). Combining the two helps us explain these basic emotions.
Two studies from 2013 and 2018 showed that when participants were asked to rank these two dimensions on a sliding scale, there was a clear relationship between the prediction error and emotions. For example, in those studies, musical notes that were not correctly identified led to emotions with greater cognitive activity.
Throughout the history of cognitive neuroscience, pleasure has often been associated with the reward system, particularly in relation to learning processes. Studies have shown that there are specific dopaminergic neurons that respond to prediction errors.
Among other functions, this system enables us to learn and predict the world around us. It is not clear whether happiness drives learning or vice versa, but the two processes are undoubtedly connected. This also applies to music.
When we listen to music, the greatest pleasure comes from events that are predicted with a moderate degree of accuracy. In other words, events that are too simple and predictable – or, in fact, too complex – do not encourage new learning and thus produce less happiness.
Most of the fun comes from events that fall in between – those that are complex enough to spark interest but consistent enough with our assumptions to form a pattern.
Estimates depend on our culture
However, our perception of musical events is often inextricably tied to our musical upbringing. In order to investigate this phenomenon, a group of researchers met the Sámi, who live in the area between the northernmost part of Sweden and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. Their traditional singing is known as noit is very different from Western tone music due to less exposure to Western culture.
In a study published in 2000, singers from Sámi communities in Finland and across Europe (the latter from various countries unfamiliar with yoik singing) were asked to listen to excerpts of yoiks they had never heard before. They were then asked to sing the next note in the song, which had been left out on purpose.
Interestingly, the spread of data differed significantly between groups; not all participants gave the same answer, but certain points were more common than others in each group.
Those who correctly predicted the next note in the song were Sámi musicians, followed by musicians from Finland, who listened to more Sámi music than those from other parts of Europe.
Learning new cultures through mere exposure
This brings us to the question of how we learn about cultures, a process known as culture. For example, musical time can be divided in different ways. Western music traditions use four time signatures (as often heard in classic rock ‘n’ roll) or triple time signatures (as heard in waltzes).
However, some cultures use what Western music theory calls asymmetrical meters. Balkan music, for example, is known for asymmetrical meters such as nine time signatures or seven time signatures.
To explore this difference, a 2005 study looked at folk songs with equal or equal meters.
In each case, beats are added or removed at a certain time – something called “accident” – and then participants of different ages listen to them. Regardless of whether the piece is symmetrical or asymmetrical, children six years of age or younger listen for the same amount of time.
However, 12-month-olds spend more time looking at the screen when the “dangers” are introduced in symmetrical meters compared to asymmetrical.
We can conclude from this that the subjects were more surprised by the accident in the symmetrical meter because they interpreted it as a disturbance in the normal pattern.
To test this hypothesis, researchers had a CD of Balkan music (with an asymmetrical meter) played to infants in their homes. The test was repeated after one week of listening, and the babies spent the same amount of time watching the screen when the dangers were introduced, regardless of whether the rays were symmetrical or asymmetrical.
This means that by listening passively to Balkan music, they were able to build an internal representation of the musical metric, which allowed them to predict the pattern and see the dangers in both types of meters.
A 2010 study found a surprisingly similar result among adults – in this case, not in rhythm but in sound. This experiment shows that practicing music can help us learn specific musical patterns of a particular culture – formally known as a musical system. culture.
Throughout this article, we’ve seen how listening to random music can change the way we predict musical patterns when presented with a new piece. We have looked at several ways in which listeners predict such patterns, depending on their culture and how it distorts logic by making them feel happy and emotional in a different way. While more research is needed, these studies have opened up new ways of understanding why there are differences in our favorite music.
What we now know is that our musical culture (that is, the music we listen to throughout our lives) alters our perception and causes us to prefer certain pieces over others, either similar or unlike pieces we’ve already heard.
About this music and neuroscience research news
Author: Guilhem Marion
Contact: Guilhem Marion – Conversation
Image: The image is in the public domain