Category Archives: Music Psychology

Those who follow crocodiles – is there more to pitch than high and low?

Hello Dear Reader,

This is likely to be the last blog I write before Music and Neurosciences V, for me the first big music psychology conference of the year. This conference is due to take place in Dijon from 29th May to 1st June. This meeting will focus on “Cognitive Stimulation and Rehabilitation”.  As usual I will be doing my best to report on everything I see there for you.

256687_10100391435178173_1745065238_oBetween now and then I have some time off to spend with my lovely little (at least in age) brother Anthony. I have missed my family very much during the last 8 months in Switzerland. Time away in another country is a good way to focus the mind on what is important in life. I can’t wait to see Anthony and to show him where I have been hiding since September!

In this blog I would like to do something a little different. Rather than present new research I will re-visit one of my favourite papers from the past few years. It undoubtedly has the best title of any music psychology paper…

Beethoven’s last piano sonata and those who follow crocodiles: Cross-domain mappings of auditory pitch in a musical context’ by Zohar Eitan and Renee Timmers. This classic paper presents four tests that explore how we understand musical pitch beyond the sound itself – how we conceive of pitch in our minds.

These four studies reveal some consistency  in the way that we all seem to think about pitch in non-musical ways but also some surprising results that hint at complex and diverse cross-domain pitch mappings.

Cross-domain mappings for pitch rely heavily on metaphor, a type of analogy. Think about it, how would you describe the relationship between two notes to someone who was unable to hear them?

The classic Western culture mapping is “high” vs.”low” But the high/low pitch metaphor is far from universal. Higher pitch has also been associated with the adjectives small, bright, fast and active, while lower pitch has been matched to their opposites.

Crocodylus_acutus_mexico_02-edit1Even more interesting are metaphors observed outside modern Western culture. Ancient Greek theory refers to “sharp” and “heavy”.  The Bashi people of Central America talk of “weak” and “strong”. The Suya people of the Amazon basin use the terms “young” and “old”. And, the inspiration for the paper, the Shona mbira from Zimbabwe include “crocodiles” (low pitch) and “those who follow crocodiles” (high pitch).

The sheer variety of these metaphors suggest that they are learned from within our cultures. However, it may be the case that some metaphors consistently underlie our experience of pitch: Metaphors that perhaps relate to bodily experiences or our physical environment.

up-and-downThe verticality metaphor is no doubt important. That the up-down relationship is core to a much larger metaphorical map – up is more, down is less: up is good, down is bad (our vocalisations and animal sounds, for example)…and so on.

However, another possibility is an intensity metaphor, relating to ideas of tension, brightness and pace.

So, are there latent  metaphors for pitch that have the potential to affect how we think about music? Here is where our study comes in.

Test 1 – Do people consistently match metaphors?

Sixty three participants were presented with 29 antonym pairs (high – low, light – heavy, sparse – dense)  and asked which word was a better metaphor for high pitch. They then marked on a scale of 1-5 how good the metaphor was for pitch. The authors then re-randomised the list and asked the participants to say which word was better for low pitch.

The average level of agreement reached .86, reasonably high. Best agreement was found for alert-sleepy (1.0), thin-thick (.98) and sharp-heavy (.98). Poorest agreements were for fool-wise (.51), pleasant-unpleasant (.53) and little-much (.57).

Musical expertise and pitch direction discrimination ability had no effect on the outcome.

Overall, the authors reported a strong consensus over many diverse metaphors for pitch, suggesting there exists a ‘thick web of cross-domain relationships’.

Test 2 – Do people use these metaphors when they hear real pitches?

Beethoven_2The next step was to test out the metaphors using real music. The authors chose Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Opus 111 – the second movement of which never fails to tug at my heart. Sixty three participants heard two sections of the sonata (37-40sec) with a similar structure but a different pitch register (high/low). Participants had to rate 35 antonyms on a scale of 1-5 as to how appropriate they were for the musical sections.

The antonyms with the most significant differences between the ratings for each word in the pair (indicating a clear preference) included thin-thick, light-dark, sharp-heavy, sharp-blunt, feminine-masculine.

No significant difference was found for pairings like fool-wise, right-left, active-passive or cold-hot.

Tests 1 and 2 suggest that listeners can apply diverse pitch metaphors consistently  in both simple (abstract) and complex (real music) forms.  The data were combined and factor analysed to reveal key dimensions for the consistent metaphor ratings:

1) Potency (weak-strong) 2) Valence (good-bad) and 3) Activity (alert-sleepy).

dogsThere was also a fourth, largest factor which contained the most agreed upon metaphors. All were experientially related to pitch – not cultural conventions but physically relatable. For example, for the most part objects or animals that make higher pitches are thin, sharp, feminine,light smooth and small;  conversely, low pitches are made when things are thick, blunt, masculine, heavy, rough, and large.

The exception in this large final factor was a metaphor for  visual ‘lightness’ (light-dark). This doesn’t correspond to anything in nature. The authors suggest that this concept of Mass-lightness and pitch might represent a latent cognitive dimension of pitch.

Test 3 – Do pitch metaphors derive from spatial height?

As mentioned at the start, the verticality metaphor (high-low) is all pervasive in Western music culture both in terms of how we talk about and visually represent pitch.

Does this dimension represent the true embodiment of musical pitch? Do the connotations from Tests 1 and 2 emerge from this one core dimension?

The authors took the same antonyms from Test 1 and asked participants to apply them not to musical pitches this time, but spatial elevations.

CurvedSopranoAltoTenorSaxophoneComparisonAs in Test 1 the level of agreement as to which word in the pair represented which dimension (high-low) was good. However, several antonyms showed the opposite tendency. For example, in pitch small is high and large is low, whilst in elevation small is low and large is high.  The well-known mapping of “high is more” does not apply to pitch: high pitches are smaller, thinner, sharper and more little in quality.

It appears that metaphors for pitch stem from an interaction of learned and perhaps some more latent factors, rather than a direct mapping of any one dimension.

Test 4 – how does pitch map onto multiple candidate dimensions?

In the final test the authors tested the antonyms on multiple dimensions:

1) Intensity, 2) Mass or size, 3) Valence, 4) Spatial height, 5) Pitch height, 6) Quantity

In the analysis they looked at the correlations between agreements across all dimensions. Of most interest are the partial correlations between pitch height and the other dimensions. The data were summarised for both musicians and non-musicians.

The only notable correlations were for Intensity (positive) and Size (negative). The lowest correlations were for Valence and Quantity. Interestingly, non-musicians had a medium sized correlation with Height, but musicians did not.

So how do we think about pitch?

When added together these four studies blow apart the idea that our mental conception of pitch is a simple, one dimensional idea of verticality – high and low. Rather there is an intricate web of diverse sensory and cultural associations that interact with our concept (and perhaps even our perception) of pitch.

We use the physical: size, mass, visual lightness and texture

We use energy: force, intensity and momentum

We use social concepts: age, gender

We use cultural ideals: beauty, happiness

The high overall level of agreement across so many factors underlies the complex web of cross-domain mappings for pitch. These include embodied dimensions with some physical reality as well as more evaluative and cuturally learned conceptions.

We may favour ‘high’ and ‘low’ in Western cultures and languages but this single dimension hides a wealth of potential non-auditory representations of musical pitch that may exist or can be drawn instantly from our minds.

Including, and never forgetting, ‘crocodiles’ and ‘those who follow crocodiles’…



Paper: ‘ Beethoven’s last piano sonata and those who follow crocodiles: Cross-domain mappings of auditory pitch in a musical context’ by Zohar Eitan and Renee Timmers (2010) Cognition, 114, 405-422.






Will music make my child smarter?

Hello Dear Reader

Today we are going to do things a little differently. Instead of commenting on a new paper, my usual format, I have written a short opinion piece in response to something I read in a UK newspaper a few weeks ago. 

Please bear in mind of course that this is just one person’s response, and opinion. And it’s just a taster of the debate! There is much more coverage in my book, for anyone who wishes to know more. OK, on with the words….

Music Class at St Elizabeth's Orphanage New Orleans 1940
Music Class at St Elizabeth’s Orphanage New Orleans 1940

Access to music education has been on the decline, at least in UK schools, for years. I have experienced this regression from many angles: as a child who received free music lessons that my loving father later had to find the money to subsidize, as a music teacher who was forced to teach bigger and bigger classes, and as an academic who has attended debates in the Houses of Parliament surrounding the proposed cutting of music lessons from mainstream curricula.

These debates focus on the value of music education. Rightly or wrongly, questions center on the issue of whether music lessons carry any wider benefit for child development, and here we risk venturing into the dangerous waters of pop psychology.

Dr Louisa Diller (heads BMJ Group Research and Development) recently wrote a short Guardian piece ‘Will music make my child smarter?’ Like many similar articles the author wisely and quickly dismantles the larger media-driven idea of this so-called ‘Mozart Effect’ but in so doing states:

“… what happens if you encourage your child to play an instrument? According to Glenn Schellenberg, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, who studied the link between music lessons and higher achievement at school, it won’t make much difference”.

I don’t pretend to know your immediate reaction to these words, Dear Reader, but this kind of claim struck me as too general in tone and fundamentally wrong. It may also be potentially damaging when we consider the way that many government policy makers conceptualize the value of music education.

The claim that encouraging a child to make music will make little difference to their education misrepresents the conclusions of Professor Schellenberg’s research into music and child development.

smart kidIn the last decade Schellenberg has repeatedly questioned the idea that encouraging a child to take years of music lessons will result in a substantive increase in their IQ – and I agree with him.

But to simply brush aside the potential benefits of active musical involvement in childhood for development, based on this argument alone, is foolhardy.

First, we should acknowledge that music lessons can be invaluable for no other reason than the person learns about music.  My music education comprised pretty typical group-based UK state public school tuition but I absolutely treasure the fact that I can pick up my guitar and play whenever I want.

My musical ability in terms of performance may be limited after years of irregular practice but music gives me an outlet, a passion, and inspiration.

Putting aside the direct benefits of musical skills, why would musical education promote more general abilities? In You Are The Music I argue that music may be defined as a ‘super skill’ because learning to play an instrument or sing recruits so many brain areas including auditory, visual, motor, emotion and executive systems.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the impact of music making on development is to view the cascade in benefits that you see from training only one of these areas, the auditory system.

Nina-Kraus-Northwestern-University-Professor Nina Kraus and her research group has published many studies demonstrating how musical training is associated with a sharper brain response to sound, a more reliable neural representation of sound, and an improved ability to detect fine changes in sound, particularly in a noisy environment.


She summarises her findings in the phrase ‘music for a smarter ear’. These abilities relate to real education issues such as following instruction in a busy classroom and building language understanding.

listenSo when we look at hearing following music making, the cascade of benefits falls into place. Kraus repeatedly reports an association between years of music making and the benefits above, suggesting that the relationship is  causal.  Musical children benefit from an increase in related abilities such as speech processing, language learning and reading, which can be traced back to aural skills and that begin as early as after 6 months of active music making.

As adults, people with a background of music lessons and active music making show enhanced ability to pronounce a second language and hold sounds in memory (my own pilot work on this latter topic, memory, has convinced me it there is cause for much more study in this area).

Even more encouraging, older adults who have not played or sung for decades show heightened fine-grained hearing compared to people who never made music as a child.

My conclusion therefore, is that active music involvement in childhood (in fact, any age) absolutely makes a difference. It will not boost IQ, but it will contribute to the development of a multitude of skills that make a difference to a child’s experience of education and that as an adult they can then go on to reap for a lifetime.

Happy music making!