AES Section Meeting Reports

Los Angeles - February 28, 2017

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Renowned perceptual psychologist, musician, and music producer Daniel J. Levitin spoke to a lively audience at AES-LA's February 2017 meeting.

Dan spoke about three areas of music psychology: musical preferences; how people became experts; and neuroanatomy — brain mapping. Musical examples punctuated the talk.

Regarding musical preferences: Musical preference begins forming before birth as children hear low frequencies, and chord progressions and rhythms. Musical tastes are fixed during the age of 12-16. People like what is somewhat predictable with some surprise, familiar with some novelty, and simple with some complexity. Predicting musical preferences is worth a lot of money. Many companies (Pandora, Amazon, Microsoft, and others) are working on methods to match consumers with music products in the marketplace. It's an unwieldy problem because of the number of criteria and difficulty in capturing it all in a meaningful way.

Regarding musical expertise: Dan cited Noam Chomsky's notion that humans by nature are preconfigured for acquiring language. Early in life, humans learn the patterns and rules of language. Dan said that he and other neuroscientists are suggesting that humans by nature are similarly preconfigured for acquiring patterns and rules of music. Young children know what sounds right and what doesn't in the musical genres they have experienced. Most people recognize notes that don't fit in the song. Most people can recognize a song played on different instruments than what they have heard before. An extreme example was played of Beethoven's 5th Symphony played on a pair of simultaneously running table saws. Your brain detects the patterns within the noise.

Regarding neuroanatomy — brain mapping: Music listening involves both hemispheres of the brain. Music lights up many areas of the brain: association cortex; expectancy generation area (predicting the next note); motor cortex (foot tapping, dancing, ...); sensory cortex; visual cortex; the "pleasure center"; and more. A composer can reward parts of the brain by sticking to previously heard patterns and violate the expectations of the brain by completing phrases in interesting ways. This makes interesting music.

Dan called upon the audience to become involved in promoting music education, which brought a solid round of applause. He said he is a product of California's educational system which included a good music program with instruments for students. Let's bring it back.

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