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Study: nine perception components in music we always hear but never think about them

Posted April 14, 2015

Music is a cross-cultural, universal, and a ubiquitous activity found in every known human culture. Music is everywhere we go – shops, airports, train stations… It accompanies movies, television programs, and sports games; manufacturers use it to sell their products, while yoga, massage, and exercise studios use it to relax or invigorate their clients. In addition to all of these uses of music as a background, it literally becomes a form of sonic wallpaper imposed on us by others.

Image source:, CC0 License

Image source:, CC0 License

Most of us seek out music for our own listening. The number of all reasons why music is so popular should not be surprising – it is said that listening to music can have a tremendously relaxing effect on our minds and bodies. First, music can meaningfully reduce the perceived intensity of pain – especially in geriatric care, intensive care, or palliative medicine. Second, listening to music can improve patient sleep in hospitals and nursing homes, and among people who experience pain or other difficult medical conditions. Third – scientists say that music affects blood vessel function.

Then, we can count positive effects of music even further, composing endless list with good points motivating why we should listen to music. And scientists are still trying to figure out what’s going on in our brains or body when we listen to different tunes.

One of the newest studies involving music from Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology found that our perception of music can be boiled down to nine different elements: speed, rhythmic clarity, rhythmic complexity, articulation, dynamics, modality, overall pitch, harmony, and brightness (if it is perceived as dark or light).

To determine what we really hear when we listen to music, researchers separated their study into two parts: two listening experiments were conducted with 20 and 21 subjects. All listeners were students, aged 18-55, 7 women and 13 men, who needed to listen 100 ringtones and 110 snippets of music featured in film, average 15 hours a week, and play at least one instrument.

The procedure and experimental setup was the same for both experiments. Researchers used Likert scales (the principle of measuring attitudes by asking people to respond to a series of statements about a topic, in terms of the extent to which they agree with them, and so tapping into the cognitive and affective components of attitudes), and each participant individually rated all features, and in the first experiment also the emotion descriptions. All examples were randomized for each subject. The subjects were free to take a break at any time and the whole test took 1–2.5 hours.

Then, participants rated what they heard based on the aforementioned perceptual features. Essentially, these features reflect how non-musicians try to understand what they’re listening to, thus what they do or don’t like.

The authors of study had the general assumption that humans always try to understand the world from the sound. People usually try to understand the source properties of the sounds rather than only considering the specific timbre quality. According to this, researchers found that human music perception retrieves information that might be different from traditional concepts of music theory, such as the harmonic progression. These results showed that people can hear more music elements than functional harmony or rhythmic patterns.

Researchers believe that the perceptual features selected in this study can be used for a general characterization of music and applied in other music information retrieval tasks such as genre description. In this case, the features then need to be complemented with a further analysis of the sound sources such as a characterization of the instrumentation.

Music is more than just entertainment. If we scratch beneath the surface we’ll find that music is even more delicate and personal than we think. There are numerous scientific disciplines – most of them relatively young – aiming to understand and explain our perception of music and its connection to the human psyche. It is scientifically proven that music has influence on cognitive skills, learning, working memory, way of thinking, and personal and social development – just to name a few.

Sources:, PubMed (link1, link2, link3),, ScienceDaily, MedicalDaily

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