by Daniel Gordon
As a longtime musician, it is natural to wonder why it is that listening to music sparks strong responses in people; it seems to have the ability to kindle emotion like few other mediums of expression. On Thursday, February 20, 2008, Professor Jamshed Bharucha of Tufts University came to Vassar College to give a lecture. His work tries to answer this question and others. While Bharucha covered many topics in his Vassar presentation, one worth focusing on is the subconscious knowledge of music. According to Bharucha, the vast majority of one’s musical knowledge is subconscious. This type of knowledge is known as implicit memory, meaning that it is encoded as procedural information rather than declarative information. Even those who consider themselves musically inept have a large amount of implicit musical information. Just to recognize a tune, a large quantity of this information had to be acquired over one’s lifetime. An example of this is the brains response to modulations or key changes in a piece of music. Peaks in electrical activity in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain are recorded during key changes in a piece of music.
One of the main variables in one’s implicit knowledge of music is the differences in the culture in which one is raised. The ability to recognize musical aspects of a tune depends on the culture which a person is exposed to. For example, a person musically conditioned to Western music will be better able to recognize a tune in a Western structure, which is usually within the framework of a seven-note major or minor scale. According to some of Bharucha’s current research, response to a musical structure of a different culture is very different than that of one’s own. In this case, the recognition of familiar Western simple melodies was compared to the recognition of simple melodies based off the Indian rag Bhairav. Regardless of which melody the subject was listening to, the subject was always quicker to identify notes that fell outside a typical Western musical structure rather than the Indian structure. This experiment is a piece of the large picture of understanding the implicit knowledge of music.