Musical SNARC: Do we have a musical scale in our heads?

ResearchBlogging.orgThere's lots of research suggesting that we may have something like a "number line" in our head: The SNARC effect says that if you normally read numbers from left to right, you're faster to react to small numbers with your left hand, and big numbers with your right hand. Similar research has also found a SNARC effect for letters (a SLARC effect?).

So it might make sense that there would be a similar effect for musical notes. You might call it a SMARC effect, but if you only hear one note at a time it's not really "music." Undaunted, a team led by Pascale Lidji has conducted several experiments on what they call the SPARC effect (spatial pitch association of response codes). In many languages, "low" and "high" are used to describe both musical pitches and physical position. Low notes on a piano are played with the left hand, while high notes are played with the right.

Lidji's team's basic experiment is simple. Sixteen students listened to musical notes, and were told to press a button to the left if the note was played on a piano, and to the right if it was played on a violin (the button assignments were switched halfway through). They heard almost 200 notes, but they were selected from just four pitches: C3 (one octave below middle C on a piano), G3, E5, and B5. The students were all non-musicians, and their results were compared to the results for 16 musicians (some students, some professionals, all with over 8 years of musical training). Here are the results:


This graph shows the difference in right-hand versus left-hand reaction times -- so if the right hand was slower to react, you see positive number, and if the left hand was slower, the number is negative. For non-musicians, there is no SPARC effect: there was no systematic difference in reaction time based on musical pitch. But for musicians, the right hand was slower to react to low notes and faster to react to high notes: that's a bona-fide SPARC effect.

The researchers repeated the experiment, but this time, they re-oriented the buttons so that they were vertical instead of horizontal. The students and musicians were told to press the top button for notes played on a violin and the bottom button for notes played on a piano. Here are those results:


Now both musicians and non-musicians have a SPARC effect: the top hand is slower to react to low notes and faster to react to high notes. In several additional experiments, Lidji's team did find a horizontal effect for non-musicians, but only when they were focusing on the pitch of the notes played rather than what instrument was playing them. They also tried to find a music-related effect, where listeners compared two different notes (they had to say whether the second not was higher or lower than the first), but the results were inconsistent; a SMARC effect was only found in one or two specialized instances.

What's quite clear is that musicians do seem to have a left-to-right mapping of musical pitches, which is evident even when they're not actively responding to the pitch of a note. Non-musicians have it too, but only when thinking specifically about pitch. Once multiple musical notes are involved, however, the phenomenon mostly disappears. In some ways, that's not too surprising -- it'd be like finding a SNARC effect for addition and subtraction.

Lidji, P., Kolinsky, R., Lochy, A., & Morais, J. (2007). Spatial associations for musical stimuli: A piano in the head? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 33 (5), 1189-1207 DOI: 10.1037/0096-1523.33.5.1189

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out of curiousity, what kind of musicians?

as both a player of multiple instruments, up the scale can mean two different directions. for a piano player a higher pitch will automatically move your hand to the right, as that is where the high notes are. for a reed player, the high notes are controlled with your left hand. and for me at least, I tended to lean the sax a bit to the left, so high notes were associated even more with the left side.

for a guitar player it may vary with the handedness of the player. even for air guitarists...

This brings up a curious memory for me, or realization I guess. Being the product of a typical 'western' upbringing, I read left to right. I count left to right. When I visualize words and numbers, in sequence or in math, I tend to always visualize a left to right progression.

There is one exception...when I think about TV channels (not the call letters, but the actual channel numbers), I always picture them from right to left. I have a feeling this is due to channels being generally printed right->left on older dial TVs, where turning the dial to the right would generally lead to a higher channel (if the channel marker is on top, where I always recall it being. On the right side, it makes higher channels "up").

A query of a programming related IRC channel I frequent turns up no one else with that peculiar oddity. Am I alone in my peculiarity?

Of course we have the musical scales in our minds.
If we wouldnât have them in our minds, they would not have any meaning for us. The fact that our brain can absorb sounds in numberless forms and compositions is the proof that we have the sounds innate in us.

Hi, letting you know that the hyperlink to "SNARC" is broken; it seems that an extraneous "l" got entered at the very front. Removing this character fixes the link.

I don't understand what you mean by "if you only hear one note at a time it's not really "music"." It sounds like you are saying that Bach's solo cello suites, Debussy's Syrinx, etc. are not music, which would be an odd point of view.

Also, is there no distinction made between SPARC effects in musicians of an instrument where pitch goes L->R (e.g. piano, normal guitar) and instruments where it goes R->L (e.g. left-handed guitar)? Or for that matter Down-Up (e.g. most woodwind) Up->Down (e.g. cello).

Jake: Fixed the link, thanks

Silverfin: No, I mean if you hear only one note, it's not music. Notes in sequence, played one at a time, are clearly still music.

Everyone: There was somewhat of a piano effect--it's complicated, but the left-right SPARC effect in general was more pronounced among piano players.

Loosely related: ingrained in the Chinese language is the notion that time flows vertically, with one generation handing down knowledge to the next. I think most Westerners would probably consider time to flow horizontally, however, which makes one wonder how much ones culture might contribute to spatial associations.

Hi! I just found out your blog, that's cool!

To answer to people asking about the effect of reading direction or instrument played, there was indeed an effect of piano playing, but because most trained musicians play musical instruments including the piano, it is not easy to disentangle the effect of piano practice from the effect of musicianship. However, we have new experiment on the fire, aimed at controlling at the effect of piano training and culture in general.

By Pascale Lidji (not verified) on 25 Jun 2009 #permalink

Ive just started becoming interested in this topic. Now that I have kids who seem inclined toward music. I am always looking for more related info on music and natural development. Ill be back to your blog. Thank you