Shihab Shamma

Funding Agency

National Science Foundation




"The computational and neural basis of statistical learning during musical enculturation" is a three-year, $232K collaborative research grant in the NSF Cognitive Neuroscience program.

Music is everywhere, played and enjoyed in every known human culture, past and present. Most people spontaneously engage with and enjoy music. Despite major structural differences across cultures (in melodies, harmonies, timbres, rhythms, etc.), listeners are able to appreciate and rapidly learn music to which they were never exposed. Becoming familiar with—and enjoying—an unfamiliar musical culture implies acquiring implicit knowledge of the rules that govern it, for example melodies and rhythms. People also automatically build on their own knowledge when listening to music: their reaction to any music—familiar or not—reflects their own musical culture. This project combines computational and brain research techniques to elucidate the mechanisms that form the basis for this compelling human phenomenon: enculturation. Music as a cultural object, but also as a signal that can be quantified, constitutes an ideal domain to investigate this important type of learning. Understanding the mechanisms that form the basis for music enculturation will help us explain how we acquire the rules and norms of a cultural domain more broadly.

A musical signal can be described as a sequence of symbols: notes of specific pitches and durations that ultimately form the melody we hear. These musical sequences can be used as input to a computational model (e.g., the well-known model named IDyOM) that computes their statistics, over many large corpora of musical scores. When trained on musical scores from different cultures, the model "learns" the cultural specificities. This project harnesses the power and analytic transparency of this model to investigate the neural and computational mechanisms that underlie musical enculturation: people's responses to music reflect their long-term exposure to their own culture, but they can also rapidly learn and enjoy a music they were never exposed to. The researchers implement a series of experiments, based on behavior, neuroimaging, and neurophysiology in an animal model, to examine the neural underpinnings of long-term exposure to a familiar musical culture and short-term exposure to a non-familiar musical culture. The data tell us not just about how music is learned within and across cultures but also provide mechanistic insight into how complex statistical information reflected in cultural domains is acquired and put to use. The researchers will also engage with the public and conduct outreach to high school students to engage them in research on music and culture.