Psyche Loui
Graduate Student, Psychology

"Learning New Musical Grammars"

An important question to music cognition, and to the psychology of learning in general, concerns whether and how the human brain can develop expectations and preferences for sounds in the auditory environment. I will present several studies that investigate the learning of a novel system of musical sounds. The system is based on the Bohlen-Pierce scale, a microtonal system tuned differently from the traditional Western scale. Chord progressions and melodies were composed in this scale as legal exemplars of two sets of grammatical rules. Participants listened to melodies in one of the two grammars, and completed learning-assessment tests which include forced-choice recognition and generalization, pre- and post-exposure probe tone ratings, and subjective preference ratings. Results suggest that given exposure to a small number of melodies, listeners recognized and preferred melodies they had heard, but when exposed to a sufficiently large set of melodies, listeners were able to generalize their recognition to previously-unencountered instances of the familiar grammar. Event-Related Potentials in response to infrequent chords in the new system revealed two negative components, one of which is interpreted as an index of expectancy violation and the other as an attempt at cognitive integration. This pattern of results is very similar to ERPs elicited by unexpected chords in traditional Western music. We conclude that humans can learn new musical grammars, and that musical experience recruits a flexible set of neural mechanisms that can rapidly integrate sensory inputs into preceding contexts.

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Monday, April 17, 2006, 11:00pm to Tuesday, April 18, 2006 1:00am