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Psychology student uncovers why we like certain tunes more than others

* 4 March 2003 *

Psychology student uncovers why we like certain tunes more than others

What is it about a tune that makes you like it more than another one? How do we learn to like the music that we do?

Gustav Kuhn, a postgraduate student of experimental psychology at the University of Sussex, has been doing research that suggests we unconsciously learn the rules for the way music is put together, and people prefer music that follows rules they have learnt.

"Music follows a specific set of rules," he explains. "In the West we tend to listen to tonal music (i.e. music using major and minor keys), whereas the half-tones of Eastern music sound quite strange."

Gustav's research involved getting 600 people to listen to 120 tunes that all follow a certain rule and then rating how much they liked a second set of tunes. These 'tunes' are simple sets of notes of about three seconds long rather than complete songs.

Some of the tunes follow the 'Inversion Rule', which states that the intervals between notes in one sequence should be inverted in the next. Even though the tunes are so short, people appear to like the ones that follow the rule more than the ones that do not.

"What I'm looking at is the way we can unconsciously learn certain structures," says Gustav. "Most research in this area has been done with words and not much has been done with music."

"I've been finding that exposure to a set of tunes that follow the rule increases people's liking of subsequent tunes that also follow the rule."

Rather than providing a handbook for instant musical success, Gustav's research gives useful insights into understanding the human mind and how we can model the learning process.

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