Music and Memory: Classical Conditioning in Real Life, part 1

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Music and Memory

Have you ever heard a particular piece of music, or smelled a certain scent, and had a powerful emotional response that you couldn’t quite explain? Well, it happens to everyone – even your pets – and it’s how your brain is hard-wired.

Operant vs. Respondent Conditioning

We trainers tend to focus primarily on operant conditioning, which is the type of associative learning in which the subject responds to a stimulus with an action in order to achieve a consequence (i.e., I say “sit,” the dog lowers its tail to the floor, and the dog gets a cookie). We tend to exert less conscious effort in the area of classical (also called respondent) conditioning, which is the kind of learning that associates a stimulus with a physiological or emotional response (Pavlov rings bell before feeding dogs; food prompts dogs to salivate; soon dogs begin salivating as soon as the bell rings).

What’s interesting about this disparity in our approach is that associative learning is happening all the time, and the two types of conditioning are necessarily joined at the hip – operant conditioning relies heavily on respondent pairings, and you can’t implement operant protocols without creating a classical association in the process. In fact, there is a growing school of thought that proposes that respondent and operant conditioning are actually the same thing – just different points on the learning continuum. In consideration of how important classical conditioning is to behavior, we’ll take a look at how this type of conditioning works, to give us a better sense of how to take advantage of it in our training protocols. But in order to present a clearer picture of how classical associations work, let’s take it out of the animal-training context entirely. How does this sort of conditioning work in humans?

Pizza and Fleischer and George Harrison

Actor Tom Hiddleston, whom I follow on Twitter, frequently tweets his “Song of the Day” – what he’s listening to, or a piece that reflects a particular mood or event. These songs might be soundtracks, classic rock, instrumentals or popular music. In the interest of discovering new music, I’ll often look up the song and listen to it.

Song of the Day tweet by Tom Hiddleston.

Song of the Day tweet by Tom Hiddleston.

One day, my Twitter feed reported that Mr. Hiddleston’s song of the day was George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set On You,” a fun song I remember from childhood and have always liked. After my initial reaction – which amounted to, “George Harrison recorded that?!” (shameful, I know. But I was still a kid in the ’80s; I didn’t pay attention to artists’ names until later) – I immediately got the song stuck in my head and had to pop over to YouTube to look it up.

Whereupon I discovered that the music video is full of singing taxidermied animals*:

Watching the video, I started to focus more on the music (possibly as an attempt to avoid thinking about the creepy singing animals), and I noticed something. I was still enjoying the song, as I always have, but I found myself critiquing it: Wow, that really sounds like the ’80s. And that part is kind of repetitive. But even consciously aware of its flaws, I still liked it. Sure, it’s not my usual thing; but I shrugged and chalked it up to the undeveloped music palate of the six-year-old I had been when the song was released.

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering – what has this to do with classical conditioning? Well, the following morning, shortly after I woke up, I discovered the song was still buzzing around in my head – only now it had developed its own music video of sorts, and the video was in black and white and everything in it was trucking.

Yes. Trucking. (Look it up, kids.) You remember those cartoons from the early 1930s where everything had a face and bounced to the music and all the characters trucked?  If not, here’s a compilation showing some of the typical weirdness of that era:

Bear with me a moment longer – because somehow, I actually managed to work this association out from the depths of my subconscious: You see, when I was a child in the ’80s, my parents listened mostly to what would qualify as “oldies” music in our home. (My father had been a radio disc jockey in the 1960s, and his collection of over 3,000 records occupied a significant portion of our living room.) Until I was old enough to buy my own cassette deck (look it up, kids), the only time I was exposed to current pop music was on those occasions when we went out to a restaurant to eat, which we only did about once or twice a week.

One of the places we frequented with friends was Noble Romans Pizza, which at the time was a full-service sit-down restaurant chain. Like most pizza places, our local Noble Romans had dim lighting and loud music, but this particular restaurant also had a large movie screen on one wall where they would project vintage films and animated shorts by the like of Ub Iwerks and Max Fleischer – video only; no sound. I remember watching these cartoons, and even as a young child I didn’t understand why they would run them without a soundtrack. The characters’ lips would move on-screen, but all I could hear was the driving rock from the jukebox, so sometimes it was difficult to follow the thread of the story.

And now it’s all beginning to come together: “Got My Mind Set On You” was at the top of the charts in the late 1980s, and would have been one of the more popular tracks on the jukebox at that pizza restaurant. Every single time I heard the song as a child, I was watching cartoons and contentedly stuffing my mouth full of pizza and cheese-covered breadsticks. Naturally I would remember the song as a fun and happy piece of nostalgia – I’d been classically conditioned to associate it with comfort food and upbeat entertainment! It explains why I just can’t listen to that track and be in a bad mood, even though stylistically it’s not a song I would really jump at if I heard it for the first time today.

Psst: This is exactly like the click. The association of clicker and treat is a classical pairing. When the training subject hears the marker signal, which has been long associated with primary reinforcement, it experiences the same kind of involuntary emotional response. Clicks result in happiness. Do you see the way your dog prances when you pick up the clicker or the treat bag? Does your cat get excited and meow when you set up for training? They know food is coming, but it’s not just that they want a treat. Those respondent emotions are strongly rooted in the brain; they’re tied to survival instincts (“this stimulus means food and safety”), and they’re not easy to change.

This works beautifully for us when we’re using a conditioned reinforcer for operant counter-conditioning, because the positive classical association follows the use of the marker wherever it goes. In more practical terms: If your dog is terrified of bicycles, and you begin clicking and treating the dog for looking at a bicycle, you’re not only associating the bicycle with tasty treats, you’re also associating the act of looking at a bicycle with all the happiness the dog experiences whenever it hears the clicker.

But there are two caveats: First, classical conditioning is always happening, all the time, whether or not it’s intentional. Nobody set out to make me associate a 1987 George Harrison tune with a 1933 Max Fleischer cartoon – but it happened, and a quarter-century later, those dancing black-and-white characters are still ghosting around in my head whenever I hear the music. There’s a saying among training professionals that “Pavlov is always sitting on your shoulder,” meaning that all of your training interactions – even in what we view as pure operant conditioning – create classical associations.

Second: This gate swings both ways. Both positive and negative classical associations can be formed. If, as a child, I’d repeatedly watched the actual music video for “Got My Mind Set On You” instead of innocuous cartoons, I might have felt very differently about the song. (And I might have needed therapy; those singing animals are really quite creepy.)

Next installment, I’ll share a real-life example of an aversive association that formed with a piece of music. It’s a story of when I caught fire – literally – in front of hundreds of people.

* (It should also be noted that there is another music video for this song that contains 100% fewer singing undead animals.)

About Alena Van Arendonk KPACTP

Alena has been training professionally since 2000, specializing in working with animals who suffer from chronic fear or aggression. She completed her primary TAGteach certification in March 2010, and graduated from the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training & Behavior in 2012. In addition to teaching training classes at CIA, Alena presents educational seminars on behavior modification and pet nutrition.
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