Are Infants Able To Discern Changes In Melodies?

14 Mar

“Good form” is a salient proponent of memorable music.  Melodies that seem to “stick out” or are easier to recall, might reflect our ability to process certain pitch sequences easier than others.  However, psychology is unsure whether “good form” relates to a familiarity with a specific genre of music (such as western music), or whether human cognition is wired to process certain pitch sequences  more effortlessly than others.  Sandra E. Trehub, Leigh A. Thorpe, and Laurel J. Trainor at the University of Toronto recruited thirty infants, ranging from 7 to 10 months, in an effort to distinguish whether good form can be attributed to music exposure or biological predispositions.

The stimuli contained several melodies.  The “good” melody consisted of notes drawn from the diatonic scale in the key of C (B – D – G – E – C).  This pitch sequence outlines a salient progress from dominant to tonic (B, D, G corresponding to the dominant, while E and C pertaining to the tonic).  The first “bad” scale was composed of chromatic notes taken for multiple diatonic scales (C – F# – B – F – C#), while a second “bad” scale was comprised of diatonic notes to form a “non-western” melody.  These melodies contained the same contour direction as well as equal rhythmic values.  Thus, any noticeable changes in the participant’s performance might pertain to pitch relationships and the cognitive processes that relate to them.

The task of the participants was to discern a change in the fourth position of these three melodies.  The researchers first transposed and then modified each note in the fourth position of the melody by a semitone and monitored infant’s eye gaze and head turns to determine whether the participants were aware of the semitone shift.

The results showed that the infants were better at discerning the semitone shift in the “good” melody condition.  This suggests that encoding of pitch sequences from western music, specifically major and minor triads, might be facilitated in comparison to non-western melodies. The researchers noted that exposure theories, those that postulate the effects of passive exposure of music during early development, might internalize music schemas in infants.  This might be a valid explanation for these results, yet the researchers note future studies should address whether cross-cultural diatonic melodies demonstrate a similar effect.

Trehub, S.E., Thorpe, L.A., & Trainor, L.J. (1990). Infant’s perception of good and bad melodies. Psychomusicology, 9(1), 5-19.


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