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Cognitive Daily: Non-musicians can identify minor-key tunes, but only when labeled "sad"

A team led by Andrea Halpern created 35 short tunes [...] Each tune was then modified to have a minor-key and major-key variant -- this involved changing just a few notes in each tune. Then three expert musicians rated each clip for musicality and how "major" or "minor" each clip sounded. The 24 best examples of tunes with readily-identifiable major and minor keys were selected for study.

The researchers then played the clips for 18 musicians, with over 8 years of musical training, and 18 non-musicians, with less than 6 months of training. The listeners were first briefly trained either to recognize major/minor keys or "happy" and "sad" music. Several examples of each type were played, and then for seven clips, the listeners were asked to identify whether it was major or minor (or happy or sad), and given feedback on whether their answers were correct.

Finally, they were tested on new clips, while wearing a cap which had 30 electrodes designed to measure electrical activity in the brain. The data was collected on an EEG device.

Regardless of whether they were trained to recognize happy and sad music or major and minor keys, the musicians were extremely accurate, averaging about 90 percent correct. But non-musicians had a different result:

When they were trained in the major-minor method, non-musicians averaged just 63 percent correct for tunes in a major key. What's more, after the experiment, participants were asked what strategy they used to respond, and many non-musicians said they just listened for whether the music sounded happy or sad. Those who used this strategy averaged 75 percent accuracy, while the remainder who used no strategy were just 53 percent accurate -- statistically no better than chance.

My understanding from your diaries is that major keys are more harmonic (their intervals represent "smaller" fractions), aren't they?

I still probably failed the test in the article.

by das monde on Tue May 13th, 2008 at 11:23:28 PM EST

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