A Musical Mind

Modelling Music Taste

Some Laws and Rules for the Musical Mind

Many product designers in music tech today are thinking a lot about how our brains model music. They dream of understanding the listener so intimately they can suggest the perfect song or generate the perfect playlist for every listener in any context.  

A few months ago I stumbled upon the Music Cognition Handbook by David Huron at the School of Music, Ohio State University. It describes several rules and laws that designers may find very useful. I include below a summary of my favorites. 

Enjoy! @huntedguy

Berlyne's Theory of Optimal Complexity

A theory promoted by Daniel Berlyne that the pleasure evoked by different kinds of stimuli is related to their degree of Novelty. [more]

Those stimuli with the greatest pleasure rating tend toward some optimum degree of novelty or complexity. 

The least pleasure is evoked when the stimulus is excessively novel or complex, and when there is insufficient novelty or complexity.

Image: http://www.bartneck.de/publications/2008/designingForExperienceBoredom/

Hick-Hyman Law

A classic law of perceptual learning. Research has shown that response times are related to familiarity with the stimulus. The greater the past exposure, the faster the response times.  [more]

Arousal Compatibility Preference

Listeners tend to prefer music that matches their current arousal level. When asleep most people have a low tolerance for music, especially when the music has a high level of stimulation. Conversely when in a highly aroused state most listeners find sedate music to be uninteresting or inappropriate. [more]

Thayer's Model of Moods

Mood describes a background feeling that extends over a length of time and which appears to have no specific cause or origin. 

Moods are accessible to introspection so we can describe how we feel.

While many cultural differences are evident, listeners nevertheless show a cross-cultural similarity when characterizing the moods evoked by various musical works -- including sadness, exhuberance, etc.

Thayer suggests a two-factor model of mood consisting of energy and stress.

Four quadrants can be identified: calm-energy (exuberance, euphoria), calm-tiredness (serenity, contentment), tense-energy (frantic, fight/flight), and tense-tiredness (crankiness, disphoria). 

Image: http://www.slideshare.net/akhilpanchal/music-mood-detection

There is good evidence that stress and arousal are physiologically distinguishable. Stress is associated with high cortisol levels. Energy is associated with high epinephrine levels. [more]

James-Lange Theory

A theory of emotion which argues that emotional stimuli endender physiological responses, and that emotions arise from the experience of these physiological states. 

For example, the James-Lange theory claims that one feels sad because one is crying, in contrast to the view that one cries because one feels sad. [more]

Image: http://www.slideshare.net/MrAguiar/emotions-and-stress-ss

Mirror Neurons

A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron 'mirrors' the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primate species.

These important mechanisms provide a ready explanation for how expressed moods may be echoed as mirrored mood - with the important caveat that mirror neurons are restricted to strictly action-oriented behaviors.

Burris-Meyer and Cardinell Fatigue Curve

Burris-Meyer and Cardinell carried out a series of studies to determine how fatigue varies over a typical workday. They measured variations in worker output from hour to hour and also determined what points in the workday employees perceive as passing most quickly or most slowly.

They found that workers are typically most efficient shortly after they begin work in the morning. As the morning progresses, efficiency tends to fall, reaching a low point shortly after mid-morning. As lunch-time approaches, there is a gradual increase in productivity. Burris-Meyer and Cardinell hypothesized that this increase may arise due to efforts to complete tasks before lunch.

Productivity in the second half of the day shows a similar fall and then up-swing toward quitting time. However, the overall efficiency in the afternoon tends to be lower than for the morning. [more]

McGurk Effect

A demonstration of the primacy of visual information over auditory information in speech. When subjects are provided with close-up visual information of a moving mouth, the visual information tends to take precedence over the auditory information. [more]


The process of purging negative instincts. An important concept in ancient Greeks theory of drama. In viewing (say) portrayals of revenge, anger, or passion, Aristotle suggested that the audience would be less apt to act according to negative instincts. That is, by seeing someone portray a character who goes into a murderous rage, our own instincts to commit murder are somehow purged. In identifying with the character, we recognize the emotions that may lead to a certain action. But at the same time, we recognize that the action is wrong or inappropriate. [more]

About Me

From 2009 I led a music startup called We Are Hunted. It was one of the first music charts powered by social media and was a popular tool for music discovery. It was later acquired by Twitter in 2012. I worked on Twitter Music in 2013/2014. Since leaving Twitter I've been thinking a lot about new models for music discovery. This aarticle is part of a series I am writing exploring the past and future of music app design.