Study: Hearing Music as Beautiful Is a Learned Trait

Appreciating harmonies comes with experience.

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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.

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

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