Unsupervised statistical learning underpins computational, behavioural, and neural manifestations of musical expectation

Neuroimage. 2010 Mar;50(1):302-13. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.12.019. Epub 2009 Dec 11.


The ability to anticipate forthcoming events has clear evolutionary advantages, and predictive successes or failures often entail significant psychological and physiological consequences. In music perception, the confirmation and violation of expectations are critical to the communication of emotion and aesthetic effects of a composition. Neuroscientific research on musical expectations has focused on harmony. Although harmony is important in Western tonal styles, other musical traditions, emphasizing pitch and melody, have been rather neglected. In this study, we investigated melodic pitch expectations elicited by ecologically valid musical stimuli by drawing together computational, behavioural, and electrophysiological evidence. Unlike rule-based models, our computational model acquires knowledge through unsupervised statistical learning of sequential structure in music and uses this knowledge to estimate the conditional probability (and information content) of musical notes. Unlike previous behavioural paradigms that interrupt a stimulus, we devised a new paradigm for studying auditory expectation without compromising ecological validity. A strong negative correlation was found between the probability of notes predicted by our model and the subjectively perceived degree of expectedness. Our electrophysiological results showed that low-probability notes, as compared to high-probability notes, elicited a larger (i) negative ERP component at a late time period (400-450 ms), (ii) beta band (14-30 Hz) oscillation over the parietal lobe, and (iii) long-range phase synchronization between multiple brain regions. Altogether, the study demonstrated that statistical learning produces information-theoretic descriptions of musical notes that are proportional to their perceived expectedness and are associated with characteristic patterns of neural activity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Beta Rhythm
  • Computer Simulation*
  • Cortical Synchronization
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Mental Processes / physiology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Music*
  • Periodicity
  • Probability
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult