Category: Music

Culture Plays An Important Role In Our Perception Of Musical Pitch, According To Study Of Bolivia’s Tsimane’ People

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The researchers conduct the pitch perception experiment with a member of the Tsimane’ tribe. Credit: Josh McDermott

By Emma Young

All human cultures feature music. But the majority of studies of perceptions of music have been conducted on Western university students. This can make it hard to know whether the findings are biologically-driven, and common to all people, or the result of cultural influences.

To disentangle these two possibilities, you need a society that hasn’t really been exposed to Western music, for comparison. They’re not easy to find. But in 2016, a team led by Josh McDermott at MIT  reported that the Tsimane’, a group of people living in the remote Bolivian rainforest, showed some unexpected differences in their musical perceptions compared to Western listeners. For example, while a chord comprised of an A and an F sharp sounded horribly grating to Western ears, for the Tsimane’ it was just as pleasant as a C with a G, which Westerners also enjoyed. Culture had to explain these differences.

Now a new study, led by Nori Jacoby at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Germany, has found that the Tsimane’ don’t perceive pitch in the same way as Americans, either. This work adds to other research finding cultural variations in perceptions that had once been assumed to be universal, such as colour perception.

Continue reading “Culture Plays An Important Role In Our Perception Of Musical Pitch, According To Study Of Bolivia’s Tsimane’ People”

Why Do People With Depression Like Listening To Sad Music?

By Christian Jarrett

We all know the powerful effect that music can have on mood. You might be feeling rather chirpy, but then a tear-jerker comes on the car radio and you arrive home feeling morose (conversely, of course, happy tunes can lift our spirits). For most of us, these effects are not a big deal. But what if you are living with depression? Now the implications become more serious. And, according to a provocative study published a few years ago, far from seeking out uplifting music, people diagnosed with depression are notably more inclined than healthy controls to choose to listen to sad music (and look at sad images). The controversial implication is that depressed people deliberately act in ways that are likely to maintain their low mood. Now a study in the journal Emotion has replicated this finding, but the researchers also present evidence suggesting depressed people are not seeking to maintain their negative feelings, but rather that they find sad music calming and even uplifting.

“The current study is the most definitive to date in probing depression-related preferences for sad music using different tasks, and the reasons for these preferences,” write the team at the University of South Florida, led by Sunkyung Yoon.

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Should You Listen To Music While Doing Intellectual Work? It Depends On The Music, The Task, And Your Personality

By Christian Jarrett

Given how many of us listen to music while studying or doing other cerebral work, you’d think psychology would have a set of clear answers as to whether the practice is likely to help or hinder performance. In fact, the research literature is rather a mess (not that that has deterred some enterprising individuals from making bold claims).

There’s the largely discredited “Mozart Effect” – the idea that listening to classical music can boost subsequent IQ, except that when first documented in the 90s the effect was on spatial reasoning specifically, not general IQ. Also, since then the finding has not replicated, or it has proven weak and is probably explained as a simple effect of music on mood or arousal on performance. And anyway, that’s about listening to music and then doing mental tasks, rather than both simultaneously. Other research on listening to music while we do mental work has suggested it can be distracting (known as the “irrelevant sound effect”), especially if we’re doing mental arithmetic or anything that involves holding information in the correct order in short-term memory.

Now, in the hope of injecting more clarity and realism into the literature, Manuel Gonzalez and John Aiello have tested the common-sense idea that the effects of background music on mental task performance will depend on three things: the nature of the music, the nature of the task, and the personality of the person. “We hope that our findings encourage researchers to adopt a more holistic, interactionist approach to investigate the effects of music (and more broadly, distractions) on task performance,” they write in their new paper in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

Continue reading “Should You Listen To Music While Doing Intellectual Work? It Depends On The Music, The Task, And Your Personality”

Psychologists have explored why we sometimes like listening to the same song on repeat

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Bittersweet songs were listened to more often than happy or relaxing songs, and provoked a deeper connection

By Alex Fradera

It’s that song. Again. The one they play over, and over, and over. It might be your roommate, child, or colleague. The year I shared a flat with my brother, it was Worst Comes To Worst thrice daily. What are the properties of the songs that drive some people to repeatedly listen to them over and over? A new article in Psychology of Music explores the tunes that just won’t quit.

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Musical universals: people can identify lullabies and dance songs from other cultures

GettyImages-149147996.jpgBy Emma Young

No matter where they live, people interpret certain kinds of vocalisations, even from animals, as conveying a particular emotion – as “angry”, for instance, or “soothing”. It’s tempting to think that there might be similar cross-cultural universals in the ways that we use music – that a song used to calm an infant in Melanesia, say, should bear striking similarities to a song created for the same purpose by a culture in the Arctic Circle.

Well, it’s tempting if you’re a cognitive scientist – though not if you’re an ethnomusicologist (who studies music from different cultures), according to a survey of the opinions of academics reported in a new paper, published in Current Biology. “Historically, the idea that there might be universals in music from many cultures has been met with considerable scepticism, especially among music scholars,” note the authors of the study, led by Samuel Mehr at Harvard University, which then goes on to explore whether they do exist.

Continue reading “Musical universals: people can identify lullabies and dance songs from other cultures”

Men with higher testosterone levels are less into classical music and opera

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Salivary testosterone was inversely correlated with preference for “sophisticated” music in men but not women (via Doi et al, 2018)

By Christian Jarrett

What counts as music to one person, sounds to another like a headache. Some of the difference is explained by our personalities (for instance, more open-minded people prefer classical) and our thinking style (systematisers prefer heavy metal more than empathisers). What’s not been examined before now, according to a paper in Personality and Individual Differences, is the biological basis of our musical tastes.

Continue reading “Men with higher testosterone levels are less into classical music and opera”

Can you will yourself to be more creative?

giphyBy Alex Fradera

Surely creativity is about freedom. Dropping your inhibitions – maybe with the help of a few substances – and letting ideas writhe free from the unconscious unfiltered. What to make then of the research showing that creativity is associated with higher levels of executive functioning – the mind’s suite of control processes – which seem to help by inhibiting irrelevant information and combining the rest in novel ways? Does it mean you can use this mental control to make yourself perform more creatively? According to a new study in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts involving jazz pianists the answer may depend in part on your creative experience.

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Music teachers and students fall for music-related neuromyths – German study

The left and right hemispheres of the brain.By Christian Jarrett

One day neuroscience might revolutionise education, but for now the scientific findings most relevant to teaching and learning come from psychology. In fact, many popular claims about the brain and learning are neuromyths – unsubstantiated or plain wrong ideas, such as that we only use ten per cent of our brains, that some of us are left-brained, others right-brained, or that we learn best when taught via our preferred “learning style”.

Unfortunately and often with the best of intentions, surveys have shown that a lot of teachers believe these myths (for instance, one survey published in 2012 found that British and Dutch teachers believed around half of the 15 neuromyths they were tested on). Now a study in Frontiers in Psychology has focused on German music teachers and students to see how vulnerable they are to brain myths pertaining specifically to music. Although the participants showed some ability to distinguish between true facts and myths, they still endorsed around 40 per cent of the myths, especially those that contained neuroscientific jargon.

Continue reading “Music teachers and students fall for music-related neuromyths – German study”

Psychologists have studied what’s happening when music gives us chills or makes us cry

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Songs that provoked tears were considered sad and calm, whereas songs triggering chills were seen as a higher energy mix of happy and sad

By guest blogger Helge Hasselmann

Emotions can be fleeting and superficial, for example imagine the split-second of anger you experience after missing the bus. But other “peak emotional states” are more powerful and they are accompanied by intense physical reactions, such as crying or “the chills”. Often these physical manifestations accompany extreme fear or sadness, but they can also occur when we admire a magnificent sunset or enjoy a beautiful piece of music.

Now a study published in Scientific Reports by Kazuma Mori and Makoto Iwanaga has taken a closer look at the contrasting psychology and physiology underlying the chills and tears many of us experience when we’re profoundly moved by a song.

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A preliminary psychology of how we’re moved by watching dance

If you’re after chills down the spine, you might find that watching professional ballet dancers does the trick just as much as listening to music. Yet whereas the emotional effects of music are well researched – indeed, there are conferences and journals aplenty devoted to the psychology of music – scientists still know very little about the ways we are moved by watching dance.

Now one of the first ever investigations into the emotional effects of dance has been published online at Acta Psychologica and the researchers found that rounded dance movements, rather than edgy ones, made watchers happier, as did more impressive moves, up to a point. The research also showed that, like music, watching dance can provoke visual imagery and personal memories in the viewer.

Julia Christensen and her colleagues created 203 six-second black and white, silent clips of a world class female ballet dancer taken from her live performances. The woman’s face was blurred in the clips so the focus was on her dance moves. The clips were then shown to 83 participants – their average age was 21 and they were mostly women – who rated them for how positive they made them feel and how energized or calm.

The researchers found that the participants reported feeling more positive emotions in response to clips that involved the dancer performing the attitude position (front and back; A and B in the picture below) than to clips that did not involve any rounded movements. This actually complements research in the domain of architecture and design that’s found people feel more positive in rooms that contain more rounded furniture.

A to C rounded dance movements, contrasted with non-round movements D to F. Image from Christensen et al 2016

The researchers also compared the effects of clips featuring different leg movements – either no leg raise, bent leg raised at 90 degrees, straight leg at 90 degrees, or straight leg raised at over 90 degrees (see image below). Participants felt more positive emotion when the leg was raised at all compared with not being raised – a more impressive feat – but there was no increase in positive emotion for leg raises that were higher and more difficult. The researchers said this suggests that, in contrast with gymnastics, “affect is induced from dance through the quality of the expressive intention of the movement – not just by its quality (e.g. how stretched or extreme)”.

Image from Christen et al 2016

Research published a few years ago found that Covent Garden dancers have been raising their legs progressively higher over the years, possibly in response to changing aesthetic tastes. This provides a reminder that the current research was focused on people’s emotional reactions to dance, not their aesthetic appreciation of it. It’s possible that progressively higher and more difficult leg raises provoke more aesthetic appreciation without adding any extra emotional impact.

Another part of the current investigation involved presenting 15 of the dance clips to 12 undergrad students and then interviewing them about how the clips made them feel (it was emphasised to the students that if they felt nothing, this was just as important as reporting any felt emotion).

Even though the clips were just a few seconds long, some of the students reported feeling emotional reactions in response to them, and two of the students described experiencing visual imagery and triggered memories: “I even told myself stories about why the dancer made sad movements and felt sorry” said one participant; “When I felt that an emotion was negative it was because the sad clips made me think of situations where I’d been sad,” said another. This means that 17 per cent of the small sample reported imagery or memories, which is similar to the rates seen for music. Another parallel with music was that the participants often reported experiencing sad emotions, but they nonetheless said the experience was pleasurable.

This study makes a laudable though highly tentative first attempt to study what many may consider the hidden and unknowable connection between a dancer and her audience. “A dancer may dance without the aim to transmit anything to anyone, but follow an internal expressive intention, like an inner dialog” the researchers concluded. “S/he may dance just what’s on her/his mind. Yet that intention will be visible in the dance, and grasped by a spectator. Thus what we like when we see a dance is not necessarily the beautiful – but especially the honest and authentic.”
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Christensen, J., Pollick, F., Lambrechts, A., & Gomila, A. (2016). Affective responses to dance Acta Psychologica, 168, 91-105 DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2016.03.008

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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