A Note About Cognitive (Musical) Bias

Disclaimer: Please note, I’m not in any way knocking the budding talent of young Alma. This particular instance only serves as an interesting example of the cognitive bias we all encounter at various points in our lives…

Also note– the mistake elaborated on below could be as simple as her mind seeing B as B-flat– in old-school German notation B is B-flat, and B-flat is H

So here’s an interesting discussion– at the very beginning of the video, the first random note given is a B, not a B-flat. And she does call the B, “si” which is the accurate term for Fixed Do Solfege. Even so, she plays and sings a B-flat.

It’s very natural for musicians and composers to fall into this kind of “cognitive bias“, hearing/seeing the note you really want to, instead of what’s actually there. How many times have we as students and performers done this? ;-P

One time I wasted an entire part of a recording session because I was playing an original folk melody all in a minor tonality, even though it was written in major!!! Luckily I realized my mistake in time to re-record everything–I would have hated to have the composer hear the recording of their work done in an entirely “opposite” mode from what they had intended!

The human brain is powerful but subject to limitations. Cognitive biases are often a result of your brain’s attempt to simplify information processing. They are rules of thumb that help you make sense of the world and reach decisions with relative speed. (source)

Initially in the video, Alma mistakes the B for a B-flat, then, I think seeing the E-flat later reinforced that notion for her.

Theory-wise, she probably “hears” a B-flat, because it will go so much more easily (tonally) with the E-flat two notes later. That interval is a Perfect 4th. The B-natural to an E-flat is a Diminished 4th — much more challenging to work with, especially with an A in the mix, creating sort of a lowered 7th scenario if we were in B Major. In fact the A to the Eb is a Tritone that, again, is easier to “explain” in traditional theory if the B is flatted. (For more on intervals, visit my Music Nerds video on the topic.)

Personally I love the idea of using the Eb as, say, a lowered third in the realm of C Major or A minor (thereby keeping the B natural) and would have loved to see how she might have handled it. But kudos to her for playing with notes and music patterns as she does!

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