Image by Mike Moloney
Why is our experience of music so subjective? Why does your friend think the latest Daft Punk tune is fantastic but you cannot stand it?
Dr. Rebecca Schaefer, a psychologist currently based at Santa Barbara university in California, believes she has the answers. Her new paper, entitled "Mental Representations in Musical Processing and their Role in Action-Perception Loops" says our previous listening habits build up a mental map of sorts by which we judge all new musical input.
She says: "If one thing has become abundantly clear from decades of research in music cognition, it is that musical experiences are highly personal.
"Although it is clear that a range of common (or predictable) responses to music can be identified, there is no assurance that two people will feel the same way about a piece of music, or even necessarily have the same experience at repeated listening. "
She says our enjoyment of music is based on our expectations of what is coming next, which relates to the concept of tension and release often talked about by composers. A series of chords might be specifically arranged to create tension in the ear of the listener, which then can only be satisfied by another particular chord.
It is our anticipation of the next chord that brings excitement and this is based on past experience. According to Schaefer this is why music only really makes sense to people who have heard something similar before. Our enjoyment of music is firmly decided by our previous experience of it, constantly modified by the input of auditory and visual information.
She also says past research has shown brain stimulation - where we expand our auditory imaginations - actually improves our physical movements: "Mental imagery helps music performance and practice (Holmes, 2005; Parncutt, 2007), both auditory and movement imagination (or mental training) aid motor learning (Brown & Palmer, 2013), and “cognitive” states can be translated into actions, such as emotional expression being recognizable in dance (Burger, Saarikallio, Luck, Thompson, & Toiviainen, 2013)."
This relationship also works the other way, with physical exercise being shown to improve our ability to perceive music.