Musical perception: nature or nurture?

Summary: Although musical perception is universal, musical training alters the perception of music.

Source: UPF Barcelona

From a general perspective, harmony in music is the balance of the proportions between the different parts of a whole, which causes a feeling of pleasure. “When we listen to music, each sound we hear helps us to imagine what is coming next. It what we expect is fulfilled, we feel satisfied. But if not, we may be pleasantly surprised or upset”, comments Carlota Pagès Portabella, a researcher with the Language and Comparative Cognition research group (LCC) at the Center for Brain and Cognition (CBC).

A study by Joan M. Toro, director of the LCC and ICREA research professor at the Department of Information and Communication Technologies (DTIC) at UPF and Carlota Pagès Portabella, published in the journal Psychophysiology, studies human musical perception comparing how the brain reacts when the musical sequences perceived do not finish as might be expected. The study is part of a H2020 international European project which the CBC is conducting the with Fundació Bial to understand the bases of musical cognition.

This shows an EEG read out
Topographic map of how the brain reacts in musicians and non-musicians. The image is credited to Juan M. Toro (UPF).

The results of the study have shown that although the perception of music is universal, training in music alters its perception. To reach this conclusion, the researchers used encephalographic registers to record what happened in the brains of 28 people, with and without musical training, when they listened to melodies with various unexpected endings.

A specific response to any irregularity

First, the researchers showed that regardless of the subjects’ musical training, in the event of any irregularity in musical sequences the brain produces a specific response known as early right anterior negativity (ERAN).

Furthermore, the authors observed that people with no musical training do not distinguish between a simply unexpected and a musically unacceptable ending. Nevertheless, when the musically trained participants heard an utterly unacceptable ending with regard to harmony, their brain underwent a stronger response than when they were presented with simply unexpected endings.

These results show that while the perception of music is a relatively universal experience, musical training alters how humans perceive music. The brains of musicians distinguish between different types of musical irregularities that untrained listeners do not differentiate.

About this neuroscience research article

UPF Barcelona
Media Contacts:
Carlota Pagès Portabella – UPF Barcelona
Image Source:
The image is credited to Juan M. Toro (UPF).

Original Research: Closed access
“Dissonant endings of chord progressions elicit a larger ERAN than ambiguous endings in musicians”. Carlota Pagès‐Portabella and Juan M. Toro.
Psychophysiology doi:10.1111/psyp.13476.


Dissonant endings of chord progressions elicit a larger ERAN than ambiguous endings in musicians

In major‐minor tonal music, the hierarchical relationships and patterns of tension/release are essential for its composition and experience. For most listeners, tension leads to an expectation of resolution. Thus, when musical expectations are broken, they are usually perceived as erroneous and elicit specific neural responses such as the early right anterior negativity (ERAN). In the present study, we explored if different degrees of musical violations are processed differently after long‐term musical training in comparison to day‐to‐day exposure. We registered the ERPs elicited by listening to unexpected chords in both musicians and nonmusicians. More specifically, we compared the responses of strong violations by unexpected dissonant endings and mild violations by unexpected but consonant endings (Neapolitan chords). Our results show that, irrespective of training, irregular endings elicited the ERAN. However, the ERAN for dissonant endings was larger in musicians than in nonmusicians. More importantly, we observed a modulation of the neural responses by the degree of violation only in musicians. In this group, the amplitude of the ERAN was larger for strong than for mild violations. These results suggest an early sensitivity of musicians to dissonance, which is processed as less expected than tonal irregularities. We also found that irregular endings elicited a P3 only in musicians. Our study suggests that, even though violations of harmonic expectancies are detected by all listeners, musical training modulates how different violations of the musical context are processed.

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