Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Liking for happy- & sad-sounding music: effects of exposure

Schellenberg, G., Peretz, I. & Vieillard, S. (2007)
Liking for happy- and sad-sounding music: Effects of exposure.
Cognition and Emotion, 22:2, 218-237

This study recruited 108 undergraduate students from University of Toronto in Mississauga and Universite de Montreal to observe their favorable/unfavorable response to music in relation to the emotional status of music, frequency of exposure, and type of exposure.
Eighteen musical excerpts (equally divided into two groups of happy- and sad-sounding) from 17th to 20th century Western European art music were selected and recorded using MIDI software. These excerpts were presented from zero to thirty-two times. The participants were assigned to two listening conditions: focused (listening attentively to each musical presentation and identifying its emotional status: happy or sad) and incidental (listening to a narrated story in the right ear and tracking certain words while listening to musical excerpts at a reduced volume in the left ear).
The findings of this study showed that: 1) participants in the focused condition preferred happy to sad music, but those in the incidental condition displayed the opposite; 2) while the liking ratings in the focused group increased between second and eighth exposures and declined steadily from eighth to thirty-second exposures, the liking ratings in the incidental group increased as the number of exposures went up; 3) the recognition ratings for happy and sad music were similar in the focused group, but the incidental group showed lower recognition ratings for happy than sad music.
The researchers brought up several existing theories to explain the findings of this study: Bornstein's perceptual fluency/attributional model (220), Berlyne's two-faced model (221, 232), and Whittlesea & Williams' discrepancy-attribution hypothesis (232). As a result of exposure, the inverted U-shape in the liking rates reflected the process in which musical challenges were recognized, met, and reduced to boredom as participants from the focused group listened to the same excerpts repeatedly. The incidental group might have preferred sad music because of their non-musical task and consequent negative mood. Sad music and its frequent use of slower tempi were linked with calming effects while the faster pace of happy music might have been too quick for processing by the incidental group, whose attention was diverted.
The researchers would like to address the following issues in their future studies: 1) how musical expertise and listeners' pre-existing preference for one genre over another may affect responses; 2) whether the observed response patterns may extend to unusual types of music, or other art forms, with or without temporal organisation; 3) how lyrics or vocal quality affects liking for music; 4) how social and cultural determinants (such as gender, ethnicity, and education) may influence effects of exposure.

Review & Reflection
As the researchers stated in this study, their interest was to observe how one's musical preferences might reflect the same individual's personal identity. What we choose to do, eat, wear, see, and hear makes up our identity and outlines who we are. While some choices are conscious, some are not. This study displays the various elements of one sample, music listening, from our everyday routine and brings to our awareness the many variations of outcomes, made possible by slight changes in the circumstances.
While the effects of exposure can be seen in many fields of life, the existence of goals helps us focus our attention and discover new sides of the same substance. This reminds me of Csikszentmihalyi's description of flow experience: one reaches this optimal experience when one focuses on the task at hand and one's skill level meets the challenge level of the task. For attentive audience, the complexity of good music offers challenges, as well as opportunities of many discoveries and rewards. The quality of our listening activity does not solely depend on the music itself, but mainly on how we listen to it and what we want from this experience, which is our attitude and motive.

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