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Findings from the Society for Music Perception and Cognition

Among the many questions answered: Can we adapt to a novel musical scale?

Key points

  • The meeting brought together music researchers from diverse fields in musicology, psychology, neuroscience, and more.
  • People use various rhythmic cues to converge on a preferred tempo for novel rhythmic patterns. 
  • Expert guitarists, but not pianists, are able to discern altered guitar chords.

The Society for Music Perception and Cognition held its first in-person meeting in three years in Portland, Oregon, on August 4 through 7. Here are a few of the most intriguing findings I learned at the meeting.

Learning a new musical grammar

The Bohlen-Pierce musical scale has been around since the 1970s, but most people have never heard of it. Musical scales vary considerably around the world, but as far as we know, they are all based on the octave system. The octave represents a 2-to-1 ratio in the relative frequency of two tones. For example, Middle C has a frequency of 261.63 Hz, and the C an octave above Middle C has double the frequency (523.25 Hz), which is why the two C-notes sound so harmonious when played together. In contrast, the Bohlen-Pierce (BP) scale is based on a tritave, which represents a 3-to-1 ratio of frequencies (the relationship between Middle C and an octave plus a fifth above Middle C), which is then subdivided into 13 equally spaced tones.

New findings reported by Nick Kathios and his colleagues from Prof. Psyche Loui's Music, Imaging, and Neural Dynamics Lab show that participants who have never been exposed to music in the BP scale are nevertheless quickly able to adapt to and understand the "grammar" of this novel scale. After just a half-hour of exposure to melodies in the BP scale, participants were able to accurately discern whether a new presented tone belonged or did not belong to the scale. Some of these findings are discussed in a new paper by Psyche Loui.

Which tempo is the right tempo?

When you hear an unfamiliar melody, would you be able to judge whether the tempo (beats per minute) was too slow, too fast, or just right? New research on tempo determination presented by Prof. Leigh VanHandel and colleagues suggests people use various rhythmic cues to converge on a preferred tempo for novel rhythmic patterns. Rhythms with a higher density of notes and syncopation are generally adjusted to be slower than sparser, more uniform rhythmic patterns. Further, VanHandel and colleagues found that the tempo of the initial presentation of a rhythmic pattern had a large influence. That is, people's adjustments to the tempo did not tend to deviate too much from the initially presented tempo, suggesting that once someone hears a rhythm at a particular tempo, they will tend to adopt that tempo as the right tempo.

Absolute pitch memory for bleeps, guitar strings, and earworms

Absolute pitch (also referred to as perfect pitch), is the ability to quickly identify a tone by hearing it and is thought to be extremely rare in Western populations. However, evidence suggests that many people have implicit access to absolute pitch representations. For example, Stephen Van Hedger and colleagues showed in 2016 that people's long-term pitch memory for the bleep censor is surprisingly accurate. Censor bleeps that were presented either one semitone below or above the canonical 1000-Hz tone were easily identified as incorrect, even by participants with no musical training. In new research presented, Jonathan De Souza and colleagues showed that absolute pitch memory is related to specific expertise with a musical instrument. Participants who were either trained guitarists or trained pianists were exposed to sequences of guitar chords that were either unaltered or modulated up or down in pitch by a tiny amount (0.25 semitones). Expert guitarists (but not pianists) were able to discern which guitar chords had been altered.

A new study on musical earworms led by my own graduate student Matt Evans found that the songs stuck in our heads tend to be in the same key as the original recordings. We found this by using an experience-sampling paradigm in which participants were prompted several times a day to report whether they had a song in their head and if so to sing or hum it into their phones. Detailed analyses of those recordings revealed remarkable consistency in the musical properties of people’s spontaneous earworms, including veridical representations of pitch and tempo. More details on these findings will be shared soon in a forthcoming paper.

Furthering the field of music science

Overall, the SMPC-2022 conference provided a wonderful opportunity for music researchers from a wide range of disciplines to exchange ideas and make progress in the fast-growing field of music science. I look forward to attending next year's meeting of the International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition, which will take place at Nihon University in Japan.


Loui, P. (2022). New music system reveals spectral contribution to statistical learning. Cognition, 224, 105071.

Van Hedger, S. C., Heald, S. L., & Nusbaum, H. C. (2016). What the [bleep]? Enhanced absolute pitch memory for a 1000 Hz sine tone. Cognition, 154, 139-150.