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Awareness and processing

The brain does a lot of things that we’re not aware of, because being aware of them would just get in the way.
In the previous step of this course, we learned how the brain compares what you’ve just heard with what you come to expect in your decades of listening to music. And this might have come as something of a surprise to you. You may have thought, really? I don’t know anything about music, let alone about the statistical frequencies of different notes. And the answer to that is that this all happens below the level of conscious awareness. The brain does a lot of things that we’re just not aware of because being aware of them would just get in the way. And so we are mostly just aware of a resulting feeling or a thought coming into your mind from seemingly nowhere.
In music, a bunch of the processing which occurs is unconscious. And so while you might not personally know what these chords are– [PLAYS JAZZY CHORDS] your brain has been analysing them. It’s come across that sequence of chords before. And so when it hears it again, it compares the context. And the end result for you is probably a feeling of jazziness. And that’s because this is just simply a very common set of chords in jazz. [PLAYS CHORDS] One very common musical theme that you may or may not consciously notice is the truck driver key change. This is where, at the end of the song, they play the same chorus again but in a slightly higher key.
It’s sort of like the truck driver shifting from third to fourth gear. It’s very easy to do. (SINGING) How I wonder what you are Twinkle twinkle little star. It’s an effective trick that pop musicians use all the time. In some songs like “I Just Called To Say I Love You” by Stevie Wonder or “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys, while Beyonce does it four times at the end of “Love On Top” just to show you that she can. It’s such a common cliche that there’s websites complaining about it. So you might not have heard of the truck driver key change before.
But your brain has probably recognised it hundreds of times in your life and it’s probably interpreted it as being a rise in the amount of excitement in the song, even if it is “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

The brain does a lot of things that we’re not aware of, because being aware of them would just get in the way.

Though you think you may know nothing about music, there’s a part of your mind which you’re not consciously aware of, which does. Part of your perceptual systems are actively focused on comparing patterns of notes you’re listening to with patterns of notes you’ve heard previously.

In the video above, Tim talked about how this part of your mind has been processing what it has heard for decades, and about how this processing is not conscious. After all, most of the time, most musicians aren’t sitting there going “oh, very interesting, a turnaround from a Bbmaj7 to a G minor to a C7, that’s an unusual progression” every time they listen to music. Most of the time, they’re feeling it, and that feeling is partially based on our unconscious knowledge of how music usually goes.

Your task

After watching the video, can you think of an example where, while you don’t consciously know what’s happening in the music (because, for example, musical notation is a bit of a mystery to you), there’s clearly a part of your brain that does, because the music makes you feel something?

Use the comments link below to share an example with our community.


Huron, D. (2006). Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Anticipation. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

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Music Psychology: Why Does "Bohemian Rhapsody" Feel so Good?

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