No musical training? No Problem: Even Novices Intuit Complex Music Theory | Science

Your co-worker’s annoying hum might be more virtuosic than you think. People without musical training naturally improvise melodies that have characteristics of professionally composed melodies, according to a new study. It seems that most people follow the obscure rules of musical composition, even those who don’t know that these rules exist.

“It’s cool,” says Samuel Mehr, a music psychology expert at Yale University who wasn’t involved in the work. The study offers an “elegant” way to test people’s musical abilities. “It definitely looks like a real phenomenon, not some kind of artificial thing that a bunch of psychologists invented in the lab.”

The study focuses on a musical concept known as pitch – the fact that songs almost always use a subset of all the pitches a voice or instrument can produce. For example, a standard piano has 88 keys, but the typical piano piece only tickles a fraction of that. If you play the keys of a piano one at a time from left to right, the notes will steadily rise in pitch until the 13th note sounds exactly like the first note, only higher. This defines an octave.

The melodies generally stick to the same four to seven pitches in each octave which are called the notes of the scale. That’s why, in the classic musical The sound of music, the von Trapp children only learn the seven notes “Do Re Me Fa So La Ti Do” of the most common type of scale in Western music. Off-scale pitches may sound jarring, but musicians sprinkle such “accidents” into the air to add elements of tension, color, and surprise (like the middle syllable of “Maria” in this song by West Side Story). A note in the scale, the tonic, acts as the central pitch, which often begins and ends a song.

Tonality appears in music across various genres and cultures, although the scales differ significantly between, for example, Indian classical and American folk. Partly because of this ubiquity, some researchers suspect that pitch may be an evolved human trait that helps our brains perceive, remember, and create music. But it’s still unclear how — or how well — average people understand tonal rules.

In studies investigating this question, participants typically rate or choose a final score for an existing melody, such as filling in the missing word of a sentence during a language test. Most people pass the pitch test, but they can simply complete a familiar sequence of pitches heard repeatedly in experience or everyday life.

Weiss et al., Scientific reports 2022

For a better measure of tonal biases, Michael Weiss and Isabelle Peretz, psychologists at the University of Montreal, developed a test akin to writing grammatically correct sentences from scratch (listen above). In soundproof booths equipped with headphones and microphones, participants improvised melodies, singing only “da”, in response to prompts such as instructions to sing a lullaby, a dance, a sad song, etc.

The researchers weren’t sure the subjects would want to perform the task. “It’s kind of an intimidating thing,” Weiss said. But, “Once we got people singing, they were very happy to continue.” Jams were typically 20 seconds long with 30 notes, and some had to be cut short, Weiss recalls. “They would just continue to improvise for minutes without intervention.” One participant enjoyed the experience so much that she signed up for voice lessons.

The researchers captured 924 recordings from 33 Quebec residents, including 18 participants with congenital amusia, commonly known as tone deafness. In the most common form of this condition, which is estimated to affect 1.5% to 4% of the population, individuals have difficulty perceiving and producing pitch. But typical, amusical brains show similar electrical responses to off-scale notes. And, in his decades of research, Peretz observed amusical individuals singing melodies that sounded tonal to him, even though they themselves couldn’t distinguish the pitches.

In the current study, Peretz and Weiss created an algorithm with which a computer matched improvisations on the scale closest to Western music. For seven of the 18 amuses and 13 of the 15 controls, the participants’ songs retained these scales better than the random note sequences. About the same number of participants ended their melodies on tonics more often than by chance. Collectively, the musically neurotypical group fared better, but a few musicals outperformed the controls, the team concluded last month in Scientific reports. These amusical individuals “sing in a way that adheres to a tonal system, even if they have trouble perceiving it,” says Weiss. A musical and multiple controls scored higher than a professional baritone with 11 years of formal training.

The study supports psychologists’ current understanding of how brains make music, according to Kathleen Corrigall, a cognitive scientist at MacEwan University. People, including amused people, develop an implicit knowledge of the rules of music and are often unaware that they hold this knowledge. “The results didn’t surprise me,” she says, but the study’s use of sung improvisation “struck me as a pretty creative and novel way to measure” tacit knowledge about tonality and other musical rules.

Psychologist Erin Hannon, who runs a music cognition lab at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, also praised the improvisational approach. “I’m a big fan of any method that can be used with a whole bunch of different types of people, and you don’t need people with special skills to do it,” Hannon says. The easy-to-run experiment and new algorithm could be used to compare tonality between different age groups and cultures, or even between different creatures. Such a tool could help scientists uncover aspects of musical creation shared by all humans and unique to our species. So go ahead, sing us a song, whether you’re a pianist or a plumber.

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