Study: Hearing Music as Beautiful Is a Learned Trait

More

Appreciating harmonies comes with experience.

4840098788_ba03e05d93_z615.jpg
Tecchie/Flickr

Why does the music that to some people is lovely, even transcendent, sound to others like a lot of noise? 

Researchers at the University of Melbourne attribute to the amount of pleasure we take in music to how much dissonance we hear -- the degree of "perceived roughness, harshness, unpleasantness, or difficulty in listening to the sound."

The team played both "pure tones" and various chords for participants -- a mixed group of trained musicians studying at the school's conservatory and members of the general public -- and had them rate the sounds for perceived dissonance, and for familiarity, on a five-point scale.

Trained musicians, perhaps predictably, were more sensitive to dissonance than lay listeners. But they also found that when listeners hadn't previously encountered a certain chord, they found it nearly impossible to hear the individual notes that comprised it. Where this ability was lacking, the chords sounded dissonant, and thus, unpleasant.

The ability to identify tones and thus enjoy harmonies was positively correlated with musical training. Said study co-author Sarah Wilson, "This showed us that even the ability to hear a musical pitch (or note) is learned."

From a practical standpoint, the results seem to suggest that we can train ourselves to better appreciate music. This includes that of unfamiliar traditions, which, assuming this is not just a clever way of promoting the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, is great news for those who've been wanting to get into jazz.

And in fact, the researchers conducted a second experiment to test the validity of that theory. They took 19 non-musicians and trained them to identify the pitches of certain chords. Ten sessions later, the participants were better at hearing notes. They also reported that they found those chords to be less dissonant than other chords that they hadn't been taught, regardless of how technically harmonious they were.

The more ambitious implication of the findings, according to lead author Neil McLachlan, is that it "overturns centuries of theories that physical properties of the ear determine what we find appealing."

Centuries. They also propose that their conclusions can help explain how Western music developed, through traditions of tuning and harmony that have been evolving since the Middle Ages.

As they explain in their discussion, the basic, 12-tone scale isn't "naturally" harmonious. Instead, it was first introduced by Pythagoras (yes, he of the theorem), who developed a system of "tuning based on successive 2/3 proportions of string length." It was a logical, mathematical method that in turn gave us "the simple mathematical relationships [that] can be found between the harmonics of common Western chords" that we've since learned to love.

When you think about it, that makes sense. There's no reason why we should believe that Western music, for those of us who grew up on it, makes more sense than other musical traditions that, to the uninitiated, don't sound nearly as beautiful. But it's still jarring to think that much of what we find to be appealing -- or what strikes us as sublime -- in music is based in our brains being trained to hear it that way.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

Just In