Psychology Magazine

Music Shapes How We Think - Whether We See the Forrest Or the Trees.

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds

Hansen and Melzner do a fascinating piece on how musical cues that vary in distance and abstractness versus proximity and concreteness influence us. Think of the difference between the first two notes of “Maria” in West Side Story - a dissonant interval, the tritone - versus the first two notes of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” - a consonant interval, the perfect fifth. They find the former makes us more likely to perceive the global aspects of a visual pattern, the latter enhances perception of its discrete elements (i.e. the forrest versus the trees).

• Auditory cues related to distance and abstractness trigger abstract construal.
• Auditory cues related to proximity and concreteness trigger concrete construal.
• Distance/abstractness cues in sounds instigate the formation of broader categories.
• Distance/abstractness cues increase preference for global visual patterns.
• Also, these cues increase the weight placed on aggregate vs. single information.
Psychological distance and abstractness primes have been shown to increase one's level of construal. We tested the idea that auditory cues which are related to distance and abstractness (vs. proximity and concreteness) trigger abstract (vs. concrete) construal. Participants listened to musical sounds that varied in reverberation, novelty of harmonic modulation, and metrical segmentation. In line with the hypothesis, distance/abstractness cues in the sounds instigated the formation of broader categories, increased the preference for global as compared to local aspects of visual patterns, and caused participants to put more weight on aggregated than on individualized product evaluations. The relative influence of distance/abstractness cues in sounds, as well as broader implications of the findings for basic research and applied settings, is discussed.
And here is their exposition of construal level theory:
Construal level theory proposes that psychological distance from objects (i.e., temporal, spatial, social, or probabilistic) enhances the tendency to build more high-level construals, whereas proximity enhances the tendency to build more low-level construals of objects. High-level construals are less diverse and include fewer details and less contextual information than low-level construals. High-level construals are abstract mental representations that extract the essential, core aspects of objects. Moving from a concrete representation of an object to a more abstract representation involves retaining central features and omitting features that may vary without significantly changing the meaning of the represented information.
Low-level, concrete construals, in contrast, consist of rich and specific details. They emphasize subordinate (vs. superordinate) features of an object, focusing on local (vs. global) perceptual elements, and processing information in a detailed-oriented (vs. holistic) manner.

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