Neuroscience of Music: why we like surprising melodies

Art Press Release from Australia. Published by anonymous on Monday 25 January 2010.

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Ben Eltham points us towards some fascinating research into the Neuroscience of music.

Which he found on Jonah Lehrer’s The Frontal Cortex blog. A team of Neuroscience researchers from Europe studied our physiological responses to different melodic patterns, and found that ‘low-probability’ notes arouse responses in parts of the brain that process motor movement (let’s dance) and emotion (because it makes us happy!).
The scientists measured the brain waves of a twenty subjects while they listened to various hymns. It turned out that unexpected notes – pitches that violated the previous melodic pattern – triggered an interesting sequence of neural events and a spike in brain activity …
There are two interesting takeaways from this experiment. The first is that music hijacks some very fundamental neural mechanisms. The brain is designed to learn by association: if this, then that. Music works by subtly toying with our expected associations, enticing us to make predictions about what note will come next, and then confronting us with our prediction errors. In other words, every melody manipulates the same essential mechanisms we use to make sense of reality.
The second takeaway is that music requires surprise, the dissonance of “low-probability notes”. While most people think about music in terms of aesthetic beauty – we like pretty consonant pitches arranged in pretty patterns – that’s exactly backwards. The point of the prettiness is to set up the surprise, to frame the deviance. (That’s why the unexpected pitches triggered the most brain activity, synchronizing the activity of brain regions involved in motor movement and emotion.)
Personally, I don’t think that neural activity in these regions necessarily equates to pleasure; whether it is pleasurable or not would depend on what’s being triggered where in the brain, and what we personally associate these experiences with in the past.
None the less this research makes a fantastic contribution to the bourgeoning field of Neuroaesthetics.
The Report: Unsupervised statistical learning underpins computational, behavioural, and neural manifestations of musical expectation
Ben Eltham’s A Cultural Policy Blog
Jonah Lehrer’s The Frontal Cortex Blog
Artwork by Aaron McConomy