The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

    Mind of music

    Think of a favorite song. Why is it a favorite? Are the melody or the lyrics of it recognizable?

    Perception and appreciation of music is a fairly unknown study. It boggles the mind of psychology professor Allen Keniston.

    “We all have the songs we really like, and we like to hear them over and over again. Then why do we need new music?” Keniston said. “Why do we need some new variation of a theme that was supposedly satisfying to us?”

    Keniston said one way to explain music is in a very circular way — that humans like predictability, and they like surprise. He also said the ability to enjoy music is innate, which is seen in several studies.

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    “Way before psychology, the great philosopher Pythagoras did experiments to determine what series of notes were perceived as pleasant . and some of the basic principles of music,” Keniston said. Pythagoras found enjoyment in octaves and also found that certain wavelengths create pleasant experiences.

    There is a wide variety of melodies and Keniston thinks humans have barely scratched the surface of finding all of them.

    Keniston mentioned studies suggesting that infants prefer certain frequencies, like adults.

    “As you might guess, that leads to speculations that there are some innate characteristics of human beings that make certain kinds of music more pleasant to us than other kinds,” he said. This is the evolutionary approach to music appreciation.

    Another approach Keniston mentioned is from the learning perspective. When humans hear songs such as “Happy Birthday” or certain Christmas songs, it makes them happy because they associate it with happy times.

    Junior Jonas Hacker disagrees with this theory and thinks that humans don’t need to associate music with happy things to like music.

    “Yeah, music makes you think of the good times, but sometimes you need music to make you think of the bad times to make the happier times seem better,” he said. “Radiohead can be some downer music, but what other emotion can you feel but upward after listening to it?”

    Pattern or variety
    Once humans find the music they’re comfortable with, Keniston thinks they mostly stick with it because of the contradiction that humans enjoy both pattern and variety.

    “As we become acquainted with whatever musical genre we prefer, or musical forms, we learn that there are certain patterns that we expect and look for,” Keniston said. “But as plain as that, if all we ever have are those patterns, we’d get bored. Once in a while we throw in something unexpected, something different to surprise. It’s that novelty, mixed with predictability, that makes the music interesting and exciting and important.”

    Humans enjoy the known, but Keniston thinks new music delights humans because it makes us question music and makes us curious about music.

    Hacker agrees with this.

    “Humans like pattern,” Hacker said. “I think we like to think we want a lot of variety, but in reality, pattern is what someone kind of strives for in life.”

    Almost complete
    Another characteristic innate in humans is how we want to make things whole, Keniston said. One example of this is when one hears an incomplete scale in their head and needs to complete it. Keniston says this follows the law of closure.

    “Rather than seeing things separate, we want to see them closed,” he said. “We just hate to have something started and not finished. We need that closure . we seem to be created in a way that fills borders.”

    Senior Aaron Verber has experienced this as a member of Concert Choir.

    “I feel the need to finish (the scale), and I do finish it in my head at least,” Verber said. “If we’re singing in choir and we don’t finish a phrase or we get to the second to last note, it’s very upsetting because you want to finish it. It’s like the release. Everything builds up to that.”

    Hacker is also involved in music and finds an incomplete irritating.

    “It’s un-resolved tension,” he said. “The first thing I think of is from a technical aspect because you have to resolve it at some point.” He did say though, that if everything were completed, music would be boring.

    Music and words
    Keniston said there are definite similarities between language and music. Some psychologists suggest the same areas of the brain are stimulated during both, and both follow rules. Language has diction and pronunciation rules, while there are definite characteristics that make jazz music – without question — jazz music.

    “There’s even a suggestion that intensive musical experience before the age of 12 enhances languagability and the ability to remember things that are expressed in language,” Keniston said.

    Language also has the same predictability and variety that music does. Keniston said there must be predictability in language or we wouldn’t be able to understand each other, but there is also variety because new thoughts and ideas are conceived every day.

    “We can convey ideas, emotions and insights that nobody ever had before, so to some extent you can do that in music too,” Keniston said. “Music is nifty because it’s both familiar and novel at the same time.”

    What’s that racket?
    People have varying likes and dislikes for the same genres. Keniston thinks with exposure, people can appreciate different genres they never thought they would.

    “If things are too strange and too new, it’s hard for us to come to like them,” he said. “Then there’s the question of how things become familiar.”

    One example Keniston gave is how older adults don’t like hip-hop but college and high school students do listen to the genre.

    “I would argue that it’s familiar to (them) because before (they) had much to say about it or thought about it, (they) heard a lot of it,” he said.”

    Keniston admits he didn’t know much about jazz, but eventually he listened to it more, and now he sees how this theory had an effect on his opinion of jazz.

    “Now I can go to a jazz concert, and I stop worrying about whether I understand,” he said. “I’m beginning to hear what’s coming next; I’m beginning to see the patterns.”

    Who are you?
    Keniston thinks music is one way for humans to identify themselves.

    “My generation, if I wanted to be a little strange or different, I’d like ‘The Grateful Dead,'” he said. “It wasn’t universally liked when they first came out. They were just a little strange, they looked a little strange, they behaved a little oddly. They weren’t necessarily the group everyone liked. They eventually began to acquire a following.”

    Keniston said people began to associate themselves as “deadheads” and were able to socialize with other “deadheads.”

    Verber has been involved in music since he was four and thinks he has met a lot of friends through it and bonded with them through


    “You listen to the music that you’re friends listen to, unless your friends listen to bad music that you don’t like,” he said.

    Remember when.
    All memories are associative, Keniston said, and hearing a familiar song is no exception to this.

    Hacker acknowledges this has happened to him before with certain songs.

    “It corresponds to a certain point in my life,” he said. “You listen to a song to conjure up a previous emotion you’ve had in the past.”

    Keniston has also found that music conjures old emotions.

    “The music is associated with other things, and many of those things are emotions,” he said. “One thing reminds you of the other.”

    In addition to this, Keniston thinks other stimuli in one’s environment can trigger music.

    “Have you ever noticed it’s not the music that puts you in the good mood, but it’s the good feeling that gives you the music?” Keniston said. “You’re walking down the street and you think of something happy, and all of a sudden, a happy song is bouncing in your head.”

    While it is known that humans enjoy music, Keniston said there is very little explanation to this phenomenon.

    “Whether the music itself makes us feel good or if it’s what the music is related to,” Keniston said. “Music is about love, and it reminds us of love. Is it something just about the musical chords themselves, or is it the melody that’s absolutely delightful?”

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