Friday, December 11, 2009

Musical Expectation and the Brain


This event, called Notes & Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus looked at cultural similarities and differences in our understanding of music. They discussed pitch, intervals, timbre, rhythm, etc. as universal elements of music. However, the way we employ these stylistically and interpret its combinations varies depending on preset associations in our brain.

What struck me most when I first saw this video is the ease with which a general audience can grasp the pentatonic scale. Now, it's not a terribly hard scale, but it shows how quickly expectation is created. Soon, Bobby McFerrin can have the audience sing while he "conducts" and they fill in the notes with ease. It's hard to say whether the audience came from musically diverse backgrounds, but quite possibly, most of them grew up in the western music tradition. I wonder how easily other cultures might grasp this scale---perhaps its wide use in a variety of cultures ensures that there is something "universal" about it. More likely, though, is that there is a universal capacity to be enculturated.

I have a beginner-level piano student who has just learned "Engine, Engine" on the black keys. I asked her to make up a song on the black keys, and after playing it she said, "That sounds more asian." This is a student who doesn't listen to much music at home, and has somehow, through our culture, made this association.

To be honest, I am quite simply amazed at how the brain forges pathways of thought. This can be advantageous in that a receptive mind can be taught quickly. But the potential for a stubborn mind also exists. Defying expectation can lead to further learning and expansion of the mind. I'm curious to know what happens in a brain that rejects anything other than what it expects.


Natasha Rollings said...

I've been working on the brain and expectation and I find this very intriguing!
It seems that musical expectation is one of the primary sources of musical emotion. And it's interesting to see a group-true, we don't know the background-learn and participate in a new musical activity as a group so quickly!
I believe that many musical sounds and expectations cross the barriers of different cultures. Many sounds we associate with basic emotions, fear, sadness, happiness are commonly understood from one culture to another. So it's interesting to see how quickly a group picks up another's culture.

joe schacher said...

I believe this has something to do with the similarity between pentatonic scales and the harmonic series. The harmonic series is something that humans are constantly experiencing. Most vibrating bodies are subject to the harmonic series. The whistling of the wind, a vibrating string and the human vocal tract are all sounds based on the harmonic series. The space in which we hear any sound is also subject to the harmonic series. I believe that it is the dominance of the harmonic series in nature which makes the pentatonic scale so familiar.

Check out this article:

It is a study of the similarities of the harmonic series to various scales. Not surprisingly, they found that pentatonic scales are very closely related to the harmonic series.