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Science: How Our Brains Judge Music Quality

Science: How Our Brains Judge Music Quality

A study, published in Scientific Reports looks into how our brains judge music quality, and how the biases we have inform our enjoyment. Results show that expectations and biases play a large role in our experiences and how our brain judges music quality. 

Back in 2007, internationally renowned violinist Joshua Bell did a social experiment for a Washington Post piece. Busking at a metro station during rush hour, the question was asked “If a great musician plays great music but no one hears . . . Was he really any good?” 

Participants in a recent study listened to pairs of recordings and rated their enjoyment. They were told that one was performed by a piano student and the other an acclaimed professional pianist. The labels were reversed, and using fMRI researchers were able to track brain activity. They looked at how the introduction of each piece affected the listening experience.

Those that preferred the ‘professional’ piece displayed consistent activity in the primary auditory cortex, and the part of the brain associated with pleasure and reward. More attention was given to the recorded piece when the participant believed the performer to be prominent and accomplished.

The brain activity of the participants that enjoyed the ‘student’ performance more, was interesting. While listening to the ‘professional’ recordings, they had higher activity in the part of the brain that deals with cognitive control and deliberative thinking. When they realised they were being fooled by the experience, they had to engage the part of their brain that dealt with executive control. This displayed that it in the brain, it looks like hard work to suppress bias.

“These data demonstrate how critical factors outside the notes themselves, like the information you have about a performer can transform what you are able to hear and how you evaluate a musical performance”, says Elizabeth Margulis, professor of music theory and music cognition at the University of Arkansas.

The study entitled Overcoming Bias: Cognitive Control Reduces Susceptibility to Framing Effects in Evaluating Musical Performance was published in Scientific Reports. Jump over here to geek out on the methodology, results and discussion.