Mozart famously started playing the piano and composing while still a young child. But if he hadn’t started musical practice then, would his future achievements have been as impressive? Is there, in other words, a “sensitive period” in which the brain is especially susceptible to musical stimulation, and during which a person must start to acquire musical skills in order to achieve their full potential — as is the case for visual perception, say, or language acquisition? There has been a lot of debate about this, but now a major new study of professional musicians and identical and non-identical twins in Sweden suggests not.
If you sit down to watch TV or a film these holidays, you might want to pay a little extra attention to how the soundtrack makes you feel. We all know that background music influences the tone of a scene but what, exactly, soundtracks do to our understanding of a character has not been studied in detail. In a new paper, in Frontiers in Psychology, Alessandro Ansani at Roma Tre University, Italy, and colleagues report work aimed at filling in some of the gaps.
When it comes to memory for music, humans show an interesting quirk: we’re better at remembering melodies that are sung by voice, compared to those played on an instrument. Even a melody sung without any lyrics — just a series of la la las, for instance — becomes lodged in our memory in a way that a tune played on the piano, say, does not.
The controversial idea that there are universals in the ways we use music received a boost in 2018, with the finding that people from 60 different countries were pretty good at judging whether a totally unfamiliar piece of music from another culture was intended to soothe a baby or to be danced to. Now, new research involving some of the same team has revealed that foreign lullabies that babies have never heard before work to relax them.
If you were to play your favourite song right now, I imagine you’d have little difficulty clapping along with the beat. Our appreciation of beat allows us to clap, dance, march and sway in time with a piece of music — or just with each other. As the authors of a new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General point out, these behaviours occur spontaneously across human cultures. But while moving to a beat seems effortless, it involves all kinds of perceptual processes.
The team, led by Jessica E. Nave-Blodgett at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, now report that our ability to perceive beat becomes ever more refined and also nuanced through childhood and adolescence. It may seem like an instinctive ability, but it is learned — and training does make it better.
Music and humans go back a very long way. The earliest accepted instruments, made from bones, appear on the European scene about 40,000 years ago. But for perhaps at least a million years before that, our ancestors had the throat architecture that in theory would have allowed them to sing.
All kinds of ideas have been put forward for why and how music came to matter so much to us. But what’s abundantly clear is that it does matter; there isn’t a society out there that doesn’t make and listen to music. And new research is now revealing all manner of psychological and neurological effects… Continue reading “Musings On Music: Seven Insights From Psychology”→
When a musician is playing a piece, and the audience is enjoying it, they can develop physical synchronies. Both might tap their feet, sway their bodies, or clap their hands. “Through music, the producer and the perceiver connect emotionally and behaviourally,” note the authors of a new paper, published in NeuroImage. And now this team, led by Yingying Hou at East China Normal University, has uncovered a connection right down at the neural level. The team has observed “inter-brain coherence” (IBC) — a synchronisation in brain activity — between a musician and the audience. What’s more, the strength of this coherence could be used to predict how much the audience enjoyed a piece.
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.
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.
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.