Misery loves company (Hunter et al., 2011)

There is no simple explanation for why we enjoy a piece of music, why we like looking at a painting, or why some people love watching the sun setting over the ocean. Aesthetic experiences arise from the interaction of many psychological processes, this much we do know. Some of these processes have to do with the way we perceive the world, with how we process sounds, colors and shapes. Others have to do with memory: a song reminds us of a special occasion, a painting’s style is familiar to us or we think we saw it in some museum. Scientists have made considerable progress in showing how these processes work and how they are performed by specific neural mechanisms.

Aesthetic experiences, however, are also grounded on affective processes. People might feel good or bad while looking at a painting or listening to music. They might even be overcome by specific emotions, such as happiness or sorrow. We are only beginning to understand the different roles affect and emotion play in aesthetic appreciation. Work in the last 5 years has taught us that a highly complex network of brain regions underlies our experience of pleasure, anticipation or chills – among others – evoked by music, beautiful landscapes, art or images we are led to believe are art, and even consumer products labelled with expensive brand names.

Our responses to art, design, landscapes, are not passive, however. We are all active agents of our aesthetic experiences. Everyone contributes a unique combination of experience, knowledge, personality and mood to their encounter with the object of aesthetic experience. This is why different people choose different kinds of books, movies and music. This is why each of us prefer different stuff at different moments, or at different stages in our life.

A recent study (Hunter et al., 2011) sought to advance our understanding of the affective processes involved in aesthetic experience precisely by examining how the interaction between a stimulus feature – the emotional valence of musical fragments – and a personal state – people’s mood – affected liking for music.

Their materials were taken from a pool of  30-second music excerpts selected on the grounds of their tempo and mode, the strongest musical cues to emotion. For their first experiment they selected three fragments with a high tempo and in major mode (which had previously received high happiness ratings) and three with a slow tempo and in minor mode (receiving high sadness ratings). Before listening to the fragments, participants performed a mood-induction task. First they saw a series of pictures showing happy, neutral, and sad scenes, and were asked about their feelings. They were then asked to choose one of the pictures and write some sentences about their feelings towards it. Thus, in some cases, music and mood were congruent (both were sad or both were happy), and in others music and mood were incongruent (one was sad and the other happy). After listening to each fragment participants were asked to rate how much they liked it.

The results showed that when they were in a happy or neutral mood, participants clearly preferred happy music over sad music. Liking scores for sad excerpts increased, however, when participants were in a sad mood, such that in this condition there were no differences between scores for happy and sad music.

In their second experiment they used six music fragments evoking mixed feelings of happiness and sadness because of the conflicting cues: slow tempo and major mode or high tempo and minor mode. Here participants underwent the same mood induction-procedure and were also asked to rate how much they liked each fragment. The results of this experiment revealed higher liking scores when people were in a happy mood than when they were in a sad mood. The fact that participants awarded higher sadness scores to these ambiguous fragments when they were in a sad mood suggests that they were attending primarily to the sad cue (slow tempo or minor mode). Conversely, after the happy or neutral mood induction participants rated the fragments as being happier, which suggests that they were attending to the happy cue (fast tempo or major mode).

In sum, Hunter et al. (2011) demonstrated that mood has a strong effect on the kind of aspects people primarily focus on. We do not engage music aseptically, we search for congruent cues with our mood. When we’re sad we tend to focus on the minor mode, the slow tempo, or both. When we’re happy we tend to focus on the major mode, the high tempo, or both. It seems, furthermore, that the success or failure in finding such congruent cues has an effect on our aesthetic experience. It would be interesting to know whether such congruence effects also occur when people engage with painting, dance, cinema or literature. Given that all such arts include emotional cues, I anticipate that they would.

It has been said that aesthetic experience is too complex to understand, that too many factors come into play, that it cannot be studied in the laboratory. Many scientific disciplines, like oncology or astrophysics for instance, deal precisely with phenomena that result from the interaction of many different factors. These disciplines have advanced by combining observation in natural settings with breaking down their object of study to analyze each little bit in the lab. Aesthetic experience, it seems to me, is not intrinsically more complex than cancer, or a bigger challenge to human understanding than the origin of the universe. It need not be dealt in a different way to other scientific issues. Admittedly, scientific aesthetics has begun with simplified models, but clearly we are working our way up. We need to keep studying the cognitive and affective processes involved in aesthetic appreciation, as well as their neural underpinnings, and how they are influenced by certain features of the stimuli and personal factors. As this work progresses we can begin putting all of the pieces back together and determining, like Hunter and colleagues (2011) did, the way in which they interact. It is the only way our models will gradually become better representations of true aesthetic experiences.

Hunter, P. G., Schellenberg, E. G., & Griffith, A. T. (2011). Misery loves company: mood-congruent emotional responding to music. Emotion, 11, 1068-1072.

Conference report: The Neurosciences and Music IV – Learning and Memory: June 9th to 12th

Recently, the Mariani Foundation (Fondazione Pierfranco e Liuisa Mariani) invited to the fourth edition of their conference on Neurosciences and Music. With their conference – which is organized every third year – the Mariani Foundation aims to promote the dissemination of knowledge in research fields related to neurobiology, physiology, psychology, neuropsychology applied to music, with a strong emphasis on child development issues. Thus, this year, the extensive four-day conference was primarily focused on Learning and Memory. A wealth of fascinating symposia, workshops and poster sessions took place in the city of Edinburgh from the 9th-12th of June 2011. Scientists from all over the world enjoyed a very stimulating scientific program in the impressive venue of Edinburgh Hall and the Hub.

As the overall topic of this conference was the art form “music” and the scientific approaches as to how the human mind and brain perceives, reacts, interacts and may be modified with this perceptual experience, I think a summary of it could be of interest also to those who approach music and other artistic phenomena from a neuroaesthetics point of view. Hence, I’ll give an overview of the main topics discussed during the conference and post some links for further reading for those who are interested. I’ll also briefly summarize some of the conference contributions that I personally found particularly remarkable.

The conference took its starting point in a series of workshops designated to present the state-of-the-arts in the field with regards to experimental, social and real-world methods for studying music, all within a neuroscientific context concerned with the study of Learning and Memory. Furthermore, following the overall scope of the Mariani Foundation, a strong emphasis was also laid on how to approach the neuroscientific study of music-related topics with children, infants and even newborns.

During the first workshop, what mainly caught my attention was the proposal of an experimental protocol for fMRI studies with very young children presented by doctor Nadine Gaab from Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA. After summarizing the main difficulties of using fMRI methodology with children, she proposed a series of guidelines to follow before, during and after the experiment with a child. These guidelines can be downloaded here: www.childrenhospital.org/research/gaab  The protocol mainly consists of three phases: (i) task training, (ii) movement prevention training and (iii) the use of presents, certificates etc. as motivators. She also stressed the importance of, firstly, a well-trained staff that uses child friendly concepts in their language such as, for instance „brain-camera“ instead of „scanner“, and secondly, equipment that is clearly child-friendly, such as, for instance, whole hand response devises.

Another particularly fascinating workshop was by professor Sandra Trehub from the Department of Psychology of the University of Toronto, Canada, who made a strong argument for the use of behavioural methods in developmental research, thus, tentatively defeating the neuroscientific scope of the conference. She reminded us of the available behavioural methods such as conditioning, referential listening or eyetracking with newborns and infants. She also pointed out the difficulty of maintaining such young participants’ attention centered in the experimental tasks. In this respect she suggested to accompany studies with additional measures such as heart rate as an indirect measure of attention (HR decreases with attention).

Further workshop contributions rounded off the first day. For me, the most remarkable three -a part from the two mentioned above- were (1) by Stephanie Uibel from the Goethe University, Frankfurt, Germany, on the project of the “Musikkindergarten”, (2) by Katie Overy from the Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMHSD), University of Edinburgh, UK, on the role of the phenomena of synchronization and imitation in the shared experience of music making, and, finally, (3) a breathtaking intervention by Nigel Osborne from the Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMHSD), University of Edinburgh, UK, on the use of music as an intervention tool with children who suffer from the PTSD after traumatic (mostly war) experiences.

Days two, three and four were dedicated to symposia with 4-5 talks each on diverse topics:

SYMPOSIUM I: Mechanisms of rhythm and meter learning over the life span (Chair: Erin Hannon).

SYMPOSIUM II: Impact of musical experience on cerebral language processing (Chair: Mathias Oechslin).

SYMPOSIUM III: Cultural neuroscience of music (Chair: Steven Demorest)

SYMPOSIUM IV: Memory and learning in music performance (Chair: Caroline Palmer, Peter Pfordresher)

SYMPOSIUM V: Mind and brain in musical imagery (Chair: Andrea Halpern & Robert Zatorre)

SYMPOSIUM VI: Plasticity and malplasticity in health and disease (Chair: Eckart Altenmüller)

SYMPOSIUM VII: The role of music in stroke rehabilitation: neural mechanisms and therapeutic techniques (Chair: Takako Fujioka and Teppo Särkämö)

SYMPOSIUM VIII: Music: a window into the world of autism (Catherine Wan)

SYMPOSIUM IX:  Learning and memory in musical disorders (Chair: Psyche Loui & Isabelle Peretz)

Summary coming up soon…

Do you know why you prefer the music you prefer?

A study in press at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, carried out by Peter J. Rentfrow, Lewis R. Goldberg and Daniel J. Levitin suggests that our preferences for music are related with 5 different underlying factors.

Like with other art forms, we engage with music at many different levels. On the one hand, music emerges from a complex interaction of acoustic properties and auditory processes, but on the other it conveys emotions and has strong social connotations. One of the aims of researchers interested in musical preferences is to determine how people’s preferences for music are related with those levels. Some preferences might be influenced by music’s purely physical properties, like loudness, tempo, and so on, the emotion it conveys, or its social implications.

Rentfrow and colleagues’ objective was to characterize the underlying structure of affective reactions to music excerpts. To achieve this aim they performed four experiments. First, they assessed the preferences of a sample of Internet users for fragments of commercially released but unfamiliar pieces of music. Second, they repeated this process with a sub-sample of participants using new unreleased pieces of music. Third, they assessed the preference of a sample of university students for a subset of the new music pieces. Finally, the musical fragments were coded on a number of attributes that could be used to characterize each of the underlying preference factors.

The results of their first three experiments converge on the existence of 5 main factors underlying musical preference determined both by social connotations and particular auditory features: (i) Mellow, which comprises smooth and relaxing music; (ii) Unpretentious, including mostly singer-song writer music; (iii) Sophisticated, including music perceived as complex, intelligent and inspiring; (iv) Intense, with loud, energetic and forceful music; (v) Contemporary, which comprises rhythmic and percussive music.

Their fourth study revealed that each factor is characterized by a unique set of attributes that distinguishes it from the rest. Specifically, excerpts with high loading on the Mellow factor were perceived as slow, quiet, undistorted, romantic, relaxing, unaggressive, sad, simple and interesting. Unpretentious music is rated as undistorted, instrumental, loud, electric, not fast, somewhat romantic, relaxing, sad, unaggressive, not complicated, and not intelligent. Sophisticated includes mostly instrumental, not electric, not percussive, not distorted, not loud, intelligent, inspiring, complex, relaxing, romantic and unaggressive music. Intense music was perceived as distorted, electric, loud, percussive, dense, aggressive, not relaxing, not romantic, not intelligent, and not inspiring. Music with high loadings on the Contemporary factor was rated as percussive, electric, and not sad.

If one of neuroaesthetics’ aims is to clarify the biological underpinnings of people’s liking and preference for music, these results are of relevance for at least two reasons. First, researchers should probably take these factors into account when designing future studies. Second, it would interesting to ascertain the neurobiological concomitants of such factors, and to determine whether there are any differences among the neural correlates of the aesthetic experience of people whose preferences clearly differ across those factors.

Rentfrow, P. J., Goldberg, L. R., & Levitin, D. J. (2011, February 7). The Structure of Musical Preferences: A Five-Factor Model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0022406