Thesis defense

Why do we Like (the) Music (we Like)?

Practical information
04 December 2023

ENS, Jaures, 29 rue d’Ulm, 75005

  • Barbara TILLMANN (Université Bourgogne Franche-Comté, présidente)
  • Mounya Elhilali (John Hopkins University)
  • Elvira Braticco (Aarhus University and Uniba University)
This PhD thesis explores musical perception through neuroscience, experimental psychology, and computer science, analyzing the link between music and culture. Using computational modeling, neuroimaging, electrophysiology, animal models, and behavioral analysis, it uncovers the neural basis of the musical experience.
We first reveal the brain's ability to predict musical events during sequences, we show that expectation modulates the amplitude of the EEG responses to musical notes and identify a predictive brain response in the EEG during silences when notes are naturally omitted. We present two new computational models for musical expectation that correlate with the brain activity, emphasizing the predictive nature of neural activity and its computational counterpart.
The question of how such neural models are build in the human brain in order to emit predictions -also known as musical enculturation- is examined through various techniques, including human electroencephalography (EEG), and behavioral recordings in humans as well as electrocorticography (ECoG) in a ferret model. We show that passive exposure to unfamiliar music for 7 days is enough to induce a plasticity that both affect the predictions and the musical pleasure for human participants.
Those results align with the Wundt effect, a key element of the contemporary literature on musical pleasure, stating a non-linear (inverted U-shaped) relationship between musical predictions and musical pleasure. Summing up those findings, this thesis presents a framework where musical expectations are learned through passive exposure and directly shape music enjoyment and individual preferences. 
Finally, we open up by considering genetic and socio-cultural factors impacting musical preferences. We aim to explore hereditary and non-shared environmental influences through both a genetic study based on twin siblings and  sociological investigations between Paris and Rome. Those ongoing work aim at extending our data with socio-cultural insights into musical preferences, contributing to a refined model of musical preferences including, genetics, social affiliation, and statistical passive learning. 
In conclusion, this thesis advances our understanding of the neural mechanisms of music perception, explores musical enculturation's impact on musical enjoyment, and present ongoing work on genetic and socio-cultural factors shaping musical preferences. It contributes to the neuroscience of music by uncovering the interplay between predictions, culture, and the musical experience.