Class Act

Erin McMullen stumbled upon the field of music cognition as a sophomore at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Psychologists have investigated how people process music for decades, but McMullen hadn't yet heard about that area of research when she designed a study for her experimental psych-ology class to determine why minor chords sound sad.

"It was something I had wondered since I was a kid, taking piano lessons," says McMullen, now a fourth-year cognitive psychology graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "But, like a lot of undergraduate research, my design turned out to be flawed."

One such flaw was that she studied chords in isolation, McMullen notes. Most music consists of many chords strung together, and people tend not to get much out of a single chord outside of a larger context, she says.

With that lesson in mind, McMullen now studies larger chunks of music. And she is finding that people-including nonmusicians-learn the chord progressions typical of their culture's music, and can easily identify music that defies those expectations. She eventually hopes to examine the theory that our emotional reaction to music may come, in part, from how closely a piece cleaves to chord-order expectations.

Investigating music is a natural fit for McMullen, who majored in both psychology and music theory as an undergraduate student and plays the flute. Her research allows her to answer questions that dogged her as a young musician and has provided an oppor-tunity to work at a brain-imaging lab in Helsinki, Finland.

"I want to know things like: How does my daily dose of jazz on the bus contribute to what I hear in music," she says.


While McMullen's level of musical expertise may be greater than average, most people have a wealth of implicit knowledge about the structure of their culture's music, McMullen is finding. For example, most people in Western cultures know typical chord progressions such as how a song in the key of C-major will often begin a phrase with a D-minor chord, followed by G-major chord and end on C-major-a chord progression known by the Roman numerals II-V-I.

Longtime exposure to both popular and classical music has taught most listeners to expect V chords after II chords, but not the other way around, says McMullen, who presented these findings at the 2005 Society for Music Perception and Cognition conference in San Diego.

Participants in her study listened to a series of chords taken from a Bach chorale either in forward or reverse order. She then asked them to rate whether the selection sounded like a typical piece of music. She found that both musicians and nonmusicians more often chose the familiar chord progressions than the reversed chords.

"They could tell what phrases followed the right rules and what ones didn't, without having been exposed to anything besides what they came in with: Britney Spears in the car [or] Bach."

However, in a second experiment, McMullen was able to override years of chord-progression learning by exposing participants to just twenty minutes of chords from backward Bach chorales. After listening to the reversed chord progressions, she asked the participants to rate forward and backward chord progressions as similar or dissimilar to what they heard previously. While none of the participants were able to articulate what about the reverse phrases they recognized, many correctly identified them as similar to the previously played music.

The results suggest that people may be quick to learn the "grammar" of new musical systems, says McMullen. This finding may also be analogous to language research that shows that adults can learn how likely it is that one gibberish syllable will follow another after just a short amount of exposure, says McMullen.

"People who are exposed to a new culture's music should be able to learn the regularities of it pretty -quickly," she says.


McMullen is further exploring links between music and language by working with neuroscientists at the University of Helsinki, in Finland. In December, she spent a month at the university's Cognitive Brain Research Unit, imaging people's brains as they made sense of new musical or language systems. Because music- and language-learning seems to be similar-as they both involve encoding information about the probability that syllables or chords will follow each other-there may be some overlap in brain systems, says McMullen.

McMullen's academic adviser, University of Wisconson-Madison psychology professor Jenny Saffran, PhD, is impressed by her student's curiosity, and apparent imperviousness to cold.

"She is the only person I know who would choose to go to Finland in the winter," says Saffran. "She is just that excited about the research."

In fact, McMullen linked up with the Helsinki lab before she began graduate school. To gain additional experience-and make sure that music cognition research was really what she wanted to do-McMullen applied for, and won, a Fulbright fellowship to do research in Finland for a year after completing her undergraduate degree. There, she studied what brain areas are involved in determining whether a sound is interpreted as language or music. A grant from a National Science Foundation fellowship helped fund her return to the lab last winter.

"One of my favorite things to do is just walk around the city-the 19th century Russian architecture is so beautiful," she says.

When not wandering the city or doing research, McMullen ekes out some time for practicing her flute. Who knows, it may even give her more ideas for studies, she says.

McMullen is finding that people—including non musicians—learn the chord pogressions typical of their culture's music, and can easily identify music that defies those expectations.