Music Preferences: Can We Learn To Like The Unfamiliar?

4 Jun

Research has illustrated that humans understand, listen to, and like a wide range of music across cultural and musical backgrounds.  Yet, the issue of identifying the underlying mechanisms on how individuals acquire tastes and musical preferences has yet to be resolved.  Are we predisposed to like certain music?  Does culture interplay with innate partiality? Or is it true that we are what we listen to?  One of the prominent explanations of music preference is the mere exposure effect: that familiarity with, or “exposure” to, a repeated song breeds partiality.  There are multiple theories that augment or modify the mere exposure effect (i.e. David Huron, in his book Sweet Anticipation, believes that exposure results in predictability – we like stimuli that are easier to predict) yet, what is consistently observed with each theory is ones tendency to prefer familiar objects.  Additional research has shown that cultural experiences can modify ones preference to music.  This view can perhaps be held as an extension of the mere exposure effect – passive exposure to music of one’s culture results in the familiarization of specific idioms and rules inherent to such music.

Psyche Loui, David L. Wessel, and Carla L. Hudson Kam wanted to see if participants exposed to a new musical system (the Bohlen-Pierce scale) could learn its “grammatical rules” and show a preference this unfamiliar music.

Participants were divided into conditions based on musical experience (those with 5 or more years, or those with less than 5).  The stimuli were derived from the Bohlen-Pierce scale, a scale that is contrived through mathematical systems different from western music, yet still contains tonal relationships.  Melodies were composed over two chord progressions and used in all experiments.  The participants were exposed to initial familiarization melodies followed by a probe tone.  The subjects were then asked how well the probe tone fit into proceeding melody.  An exposure condition of 30 minutes of new music followed, and finally the participants were run in a recognition, additional probe tone, and preference task.

The results showed that with just 30 minutes of passive exposure to the new melodies, musicians and non-musicians learned individual melodies, event frequencies of tones, and grammatical rules.  Preference for the music was robust when a small group of the stimuli melodies were repeatedly exposed to the subjects.  The results however, do not postulate why we might like certain music, but as the researchers playfully conclude, “the current research… suggests that much of what we know and like about music can be learned.”

Loui, P., Wessel, D.L., & Hudson Kam, C.L. (2010). Humans rapidly learn grammatical structure in a new musical scale. Music Perception, 27(5), 377-388.


3 Responses to “Music Preferences: Can We Learn To Like The Unfamiliar?”

  1. Pam Chalkley June 4, 2011 at 7:51 pm #

    Were all of your participants adults? How large a group? It would be interesting to see how people differ – or if they do – based on age, because we do tend to get more entrenched in our aculturation as we get older, I think. (You needed more work?) Again, bravo. Great work.

    • Parker June 6, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

      Thanks Pam! To give credit where it’s due, this study was done in Boston at Beth Israel / Harvard Medical School. The participants were all undergraduates between the ages of 18 – 22, which is usually a target population for psychology studies (due to convenience). I agree! Surely, participants with a life-long listening experience might differ than younger participants… Perhaps a follow up study would be required…


  1. 5 Keys to Refresh Your Musical Palette | - July 20, 2015

    […] Some studies suggest that our musical preferences are largely determined by exposure. We enjoy what we listen to and we listen to what we enjoy. So how can you learn to like something new? Here are a few ways to start: […]

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