What Comes Next? The Joy of Anticipating Melodies

Are you passionate about music? As we explore new songs, part of the excitement comes from successfully predicting their outcomes, as suggested by scientific research. 

In this episode of Under the Cortex, APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum hosts music researchers who delve into the rewarding experience of accurately predicting tunes. Nicholas Kathios and Psyche Loui from Northeastern University, along with Matthew Sachs from Columbia University, discuss their recently published article in Psychological Science. The group explores the underlying mechanisms behind music enjoyment and melody anticipation. 

Unedited transcript

[00:00:09.130] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

What is your favorite song? Many of us have strong preferences when it comes to our music choices. We might not agree with others about the best song or album, but one thing is clear. For humans, music is a vital part of our lives. We engage with music through various activities, such as attending concerts, creating playlists, and following top music charts. Despite music being a part of our everyday lives, little is known about how humans process it. This is under the cortex. I am Özge Gürcanlı Fischer-Baum with the Association for Psychological Science. In this episode, I’m joined by Nicholas Kathios and Psyche Loui from Northeastern University, as well as Matthew Sachs from Columbia University. They recently published their research findings in APS’s flagship journal, Psychological Science. Together, we will discuss how people find new musical sounds rewarding, and we will explore the cognitive mechanisms underlying this phenomenon. Nicholas, Psyche and Matthew, thank you for joining me today. Welcome to Under the Cortex. 

[00:01:20.030] – Psyche Loui 

Thank you. It’s great to be here. 

[00:01:21.630] – Nicholas Kathios 

Thank you. 

[00:01:22.160] – Matthew Sachs 

Thanks for having us. 

[00:01:23.440] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

So, Nicholas, Psyche and Matthew, tell our listeners a little bit about yourselves before we dive into your research. 

[00:01:31.310] – Nicholas Kathios 

Hi, everyone. My name is Nick. I am a third year PhD candidate at Northeastern University studying psychology. I’m really excited to be here. 

[00:01:41.410] – Matthew Sachs 

Hi, I’m Matt. I’m an associate research scientist at Columbia and a data scientist at Spotify who worked with Psyche as an undergrad at Harvard and also as a postdoc at Columbia. Now, continuing on. 

[00:01:54.070] – Psyche Loui 

And I’m Psyche Loui, and I’m associate professor of creativity and creative practice in the department of Music and in psychology at Northeastern University, where I run the mind lab. The mind lab stands for music imaging and neural dynamics. 

[00:02:11.610] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Wonderful. Thanks again for being with us today. How did you get involved with this research? 

[00:02:18.970] – Psyche Loui 

Well, I’ve been interested in music and the brain for as long as I can remember. I play music myself. Started as a kind of good Asian kid playing piano and violin, but then also very interested in science and took all the science classes growing up. And at some point in undergraduate days, I started taking courses in neuroscience and really kind of thought that was where it’s at. And then when I started reading about music and brain research, that was kind of nascent at the time, I just really kind of fell in love with the field and wanted to do it forever and ever. Yeah. And I guess I haven’t really looked back. 

[00:02:58.730] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

What about you, Nick? 

[00:03:00.570] – Nicholas Kathios 

Yeah, so I, like a lot of people in this field, first got familiar with music through my classical training. I played the french horn, and I got really excited about the intersection between music and science. When I heard about this field of music therapy. And I knew that most music therapists weren’t french horn players, so I became really interested in sort of doing the science that might support music therapy. And that’s sort of how I got into majoring in music and psychology at my undergrad. And I was lucky enough to get involved with a lab that was doing music and memory research, and that really set me up for success and interest in applying grad school, and that’s sort of how I got here today. 

[00:03:41.110] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

And you, Matt? 

[00:03:42.330] – Psyche Loui 


[00:03:42.570] – Matthew Sachs 

I also grew up playing music and studying science. My parents are both psychologists or psychiatrists and musicians, so it kind of made sense to merge these two interests. And in high school, I started reading a bit more about it, particularly authors like Oliver Sachs and their exploration into the intersection between these two mediums. And then, luckily, as an actually, they offered a course on music and neuroscience, which psyche was a guest lecturer in. So I met Psyche through that and applied to her lab as a undergrad researcher. And then since then, I’ve been involved in work with Psyche, but others as well. Since undergrad? 

[00:04:22.470] – Psyche Loui 

Yeah, that was like more than ten years ago, right? 

[00:04:25.690] – Matthew Sachs 

Yeah, probably 2010, almost 14 years ago. 

[00:04:31.050] – Psyche Loui 

14 years. 

[00:04:34.150] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

So, as I understand your paper, you offer a theoretical model about predictability, and you suggest that hearing something a lot of times makes it easier for people to predict what will happen next. And then people like that, they can predict. Can you give an example of how this might play out with a song? 

[00:04:55.710] – Matthew Sachs 

Sure. Yeah. So, in our model, we used this music that people were very unfamiliar with to look at how learning the structure of the music relates to how much people like it. And we showed that the more they hear it, the more repeated times, they are better able to learn the structure and therefore like it. But we sort of know, and we also sort of believe that this is probably an inverted use, so that if people hear it over and over and over, it becomes too repetitive, liking starts to drop. So music subverting those expectations in the right way is also something we tend to really like. So you can think of songs that maybe have, like, a deceptive cadence or a borrowed chord, where we expect something like a resolution back to the tonic, but they actually go to a 7th or a second. Those are moments that are not uncommon within the structure of western music, but not exactly what might be predicted in that moment. Given the amount of times we’ve heard something like a four, five one. You could hear this in tons of songs, not just pop, but tons of classical music songs as well. 

[00:05:52.350] – Matthew Sachs 

Istan and Tristold. Is one that comes to mind by Wagner. So I think it’s a little bit more complicated than just we like things that we can predict. It’s we like things when we are rewarded, that we can predict them, but also when those predictions are within a framework that we are likely to be able to know what comes next. But then they subvert those expectations in key ways. 

[00:06:13.350] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

So do you think, is this why pop music is so popular? Like people like how predictable it is? 

[00:06:20.170] – Matthew Sachs 

I think that’s one possible way, yeah. 

[00:06:22.910] – Psyche Loui 

I mean, I think that most popular music really tends to have a certain chord progression, so very few deceptive cadences, per what Matt just said. It also tends to have a groove, or it tends to be in 2344. So those very kind of predictable rhythmic structures. But I think most pop music, and I would say maybe all kind of successful songwriters and producers, are also sensitive to the novelty aspect. So I really like Adele, someone like you, that song, that’s a mega hit, of course. But there’s something about that moment when she sings every time I find someone like you. And then there’s the additional ooh, ooh bits that came right after the you. I think those are moments that are slightly unexpected, and that’s when music becomes most rewarding. There are different forces at play that music kind of simultaneously taps into. 

[00:07:27.070] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah, so this takes me to my next question. So you rely on a music scale unfamiliar to most audiences. This is what it sounds like. 

[00:07:58.730] – Psyche Loui 

Feels at first like you’re in an unfamiliar world. And it’s at first kind of odd and maybe a little bit decentering. But then after a while of listening, it really starts to feel not only familiar, but you start to form your own expectations for it. Kind of almost sounds like you’re starting to get the hang of a new language, if you will. And this Boland Pierce scale, it was initially discovered by two people, Boland and Pierce, who independently had mathematically worked out how, if you take these mathematical ratios that are predetermined using the three to one frequency ratio, as opposed to the two to one frequency ratio, which is in western music. So what Boland and Pierce independently found out was that the three to one frequency ratio can be divided into 13 steps to form this novel musical scale that has steps that are a little bit larger than the western traditional musical scale, but that still afford real chords and chord progression. So if you play certain notes together, they still sound smooth and they still sound acoustically plausible. So then that became the basis of our new experimental studies. But I should say our lab is not the only ones that have come up with music in this scale. 

[00:09:26.060] – Psyche Loui 

There’s a small and very active field of microtonal and macrotonal music composers that are really into this. And, in fact, in the year 2010 at Northeastern University, there was a whole concert series on the Boland Pierre scale music where these macrotonal composers from all around the world came together and hosted a series of concerts. And by the end of three nights of listening to these new tuning systems, you really do start to feel like it becomes very much like something you’ve been used to all the time, which really, I think, dovetails well with our current findings. 

[00:10:06.210] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah. Can you walk me through how I, as a participant, would experience your study? 

[00:10:12.930] – Nicholas Kathios 

Yeah. So, typically, when we talk about the setup of our experiment, we talk about it in about three phases. So in the first phase, we expose participants to this new music written in the Bolden Pierce scale once per melody, and we ask them how much they like it and how familiar it sounds. Typically, it doesn’t sound too familiar to listeners, again, of course, because this is quite a novel musical scale. After that, phase two is the exposure phase. And during this phase, this is when participants are exposed to varying levels of different melodies at different amounts of times. And during this part of the task, we actually tell participants to pay attention for warbles or vibratos in the music, and that’s what they think the experiment is about. So detecting these warbles in this sort of novel scale, when in fact, we’re actually manipulating how many times they’re hearing these stimuli. And really importantly, too, in the exposure phase, the stimuli are all sort of composed on the same chord structure in the bowl and Pierce scale. So when they finish this exposure phase, they go to the next phase, which is the rating phase, which, again, we ask both liking and familiarity, and they’re exposed to all these melodies. 

[00:11:13.900] – Nicholas Kathios 

Again, they’re also exposed to sort of complementary versions of each melody, which begin the same but end differently. And importantly, this difference sort of violates that chord structure that they all were built on in the exposure phase. And we also present them with two new melodies, one which they haven’t heard before. Of course, that sort of conforms to this chord structure, and another that is the same from that new one but ends differently as well. This allows us to sort of tease apart both the effect of sort of exposure to a single item or melody in the exposure phase. But we’re also able to tease apart the effects of exposure to this sort of learned harmony or harmonic structure that’s underlying all of the melodies in the exposure phase. 

[00:11:52.930] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

And one of the strengths of this paper is that you use a variety of populations to test the boundaries of your hypotheses and how generalizable they are. Can you talk a little bit about how you recruited and why you chose different population? 

[00:12:10.810] – Psyche Loui 

Well, I would say the most important question about where music comes from and why we have it is how much is it innate and how much is it learned? 

[00:12:22.520] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 


[00:12:22.690] – Psyche Loui 

So that the classic nature nurture debate, which I think we’re really kind of trying to move past that, but trying to look into gene culture coevolution and kind of that interactions between cultural exposure and properties of the sounds themselves. So one kind of basic question is, do people from different cultures react the same way to these new tunes that they’re hearing for the first time? And surprisingly, that hadn’t been done before, not with the bull and Pierre scale. So, at the time, we had a student who was based in Beijing, Beijing Normal University, Tia O. So she got on board and very quickly learned about our research and then ended up running the Beijing portion of the study. So we had a series of studies that were run on online listeners based in the US, and then one study was done in chinese individuals based out of Beijing, and those results were remarkably similar. And then there were a few other cases that were super interesting. Nick, maybe, do you want to talk a little bit about them? 

[00:13:27.510] – Matthew Sachs 


[00:13:28.340] – Nicholas Kathios 

Sort of another approach we took in this paper was another way to think about why we have music evolutionarily or in our everyday lives, is investigating a specific case study of musical anodynia. And individuals with musical anodonia experience wanted pleasure specifically to music. So they enjoy things like walking on the beach or eating good food, but don’t really get much pleasure from listening to music. I think what is a notable strength of our paper is that we were able to both test our paradigm, both in individuals who had this specific musical anodynia. But we also were able to take the approach of sort of doing like, a mini meta analysis within our study and relate sort of more continuous individual difference measures of how much people like listen to music and relate that to our outcome. So we were able to sort of probe this in sort of a case study approach, but also in sort of a more continuous across our entire study population approach. So that was pretty informative to what we saw. 

[00:14:21.330] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

So if you were to boil down your key finding into two easy to understand sentences for our audience, how would you summarize your findings? 

[00:14:30.470] – Matthew Sachs 

Yeah, I can try to do that. So, I guess we show that across two distinct cultures, there’s multiple levels of prediction and prediction errors that come into play when it comes to generating musical reward. And furthermore, this trajectory between learning new musical system and musical reward varies based on individual differences of sensitivity to musical reward and maps on to the brain’s reward system. 

[00:14:59.390] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

So people experience this differently. 

[00:15:03.090] – Matthew Sachs 

There seems to be differences between them, but it isn’t clearly defined by culture. It’s defined by, at least in this study, something else, which is our individual sensitivity to musical reward. That’s related to what Nick was talking about with music. Anhedonia is an extreme version of that, where there’s very low sensitivity to musical reward, but cultural differences in terms of the music we listen to and are culturated from birth didn’t seem to have a huge play here. So that isn’t a clear differentiator here. 

[00:15:31.290] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

So this takes me to my next question. So why is it important for us to know this? What are the implications of your findings? 

[00:15:39.250] – Psyche Loui 

Yeah, I can take a stab at this. This is something I’ve been wondering a lot about for a long time, folks saying, like, I’m not a bluegrass kind of guy, or I’m a classical kind of person or a jazz kind of person. Are there real mappings between these genres and individual differences in what predictions we find to be rewarding? Or is it much more about identity that we latch onto with certain kind of musical genres having certain stereotypes? Right. And growing up as a music major, we studied a lot of 20th century music that many kind of public audience might think of as not enjoyable. Very strange kind of music. Right. And I’d always wondered how much of those tastes are really determined by actual brain differences or cultural and upbringing differences. And so one part of this work that really, I think, rings true is showing us that with enough exposure, you can learn to like new music, even though it seems very alien and unfamiliar and strange at first. And then the other part of that is there are individual differences in how sensitive we are to these acoustic experiences and the way they tap into our reward system. 

[00:17:07.290] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

And what kind of research are you going to be focusing on next on this topic? 

[00:17:12.830] – Psyche Loui 

Nick has all sorts of ideas. 

[00:17:17.130] – Nicholas Kathios 

So we’re particularly interested in looking at what’s going on with music reward valuation earlier in development. So I’m thinking more in terms of childhood and adolescence. And this is particularly inspired by, I would say, two sort of separate lines of literature. The first in older adults, which shows that older adults tend to recall most autobiographical memories in response to music from around their adolescent or teenage years. Typically, these memories are associated with greater preference for music from this time period. So that’s sort of one piece of evidence that there’s something important going on with how people interact with music in this developmental window. And at the same time, work in sort of the developmental cognitive neuroscience sphere has shown that the adolescent brain is sort of optimized to use reward to learn quite well. So that’s sort of some more evidence in development that there’s also something going on with reward valuation. And given that the study is sort of interested in thinking about how musical reward is sort of built up through exposure, we’re interested in seeing if this might be particularly strengthened in adolescence, which might sort of explain sort of lifelong affection towards music from this time period. 

[00:18:26.530] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

And you mentioned that you all are engaging with music in different ways, but what is it like to collaborate with musicians in psychological research? So that is not a very common experience for most psychologists. What was it like? 

[00:18:41.590] – Matthew Sachs 

Yeah, so to clarify for this project, most of the music was written by somebody in Psychus lab who is a researcher and a musician. And a lot of times, because of our backgrounds, we can get away with writing our own or using our own resources to come up with stimuli. But sometimes, and a lot of times, it might make sense to not do that and actually work directly with people who are so adept at doing this. So for some research I did at Columbia, we collaborated with film composers at NYU’s film composition school. And the idea is we were trying to get. We wanted music that was going to induce a particular motion at a particular period of time. And film composers are actually naturally trained to do this. This is exactly what a director might ask from them, too. So it was actually a very fun collaboration, both for me and them, because I think maybe more so than other composers. They were used to somebody coming in and saying, we need this feeling right now for this long with these instruments. And they went, okay. And then they wrote it. And we kind of went back and forth a little bit on this, maybe is too fast, or this didn’t really convey it, and trying to kind of feed data back into what they were doing. 

[00:19:49.770] – Matthew Sachs 

So we would take samples, run it through a little survey, see how people responded, give it back to them. They would adjust, and that’s how we came up with pieces of music together. 

[00:19:58.830] – Psyche Loui 

These stimuli were composed by Wen Zheng, who was an author on the study. Having music technology and music students being in the lab has been really helpful for us. And at Northeastern University, we have this combined major in psychology and music that’s pretty unique. So a lot of students come here specifically wanting to think about these kinds of questions, and they also develop music technology and composition skills in the process. 

[00:20:28.170] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah, thank you. Also, this was very interesting and I personally learned a lot. If our listeners want to learn more about your work, where might they read more and or follow you? 

[00:20:39.130] – Psyche Loui 

I guess X is the new Twitter, right? I’m at psyche Louie. I’m the only psyche Louie on the Internet as far as I know, so I’m very easy to find on Google. 

[00:20:50.990] – Matthew Sachs 

I don’t have X, but you can go to matthewsachs.com. 

[00:20:54.900] – Nicholas Kathios 

I’m also periodically on X so you can follow me at Nick Kathios Nickathios. 

[00:21:01.410] – Psyche Loui 

Oh yes. Also bluesky. I think Nick and I are both on bluesky. I’m actually on there more than I am on X now. 

[00:21:10.950] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

All right, so we have your names and I hope your listeners will do a Google search and they will find you on X or Blue sky or on your website map. This is Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum with APS and I have been speaking to Nicholas Kathios and Psyche Loui from Northeastern University and Matthew Sachs from Columbia University. If you want to know more about this research, visit psychologicalscience.org. 

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