Researchers have tried to identify why we find certain music beautiful

Researchers at the University of Melbourne may have identified why one person's idea of 'beautiful music' is another person's 'hideous racket'.

23.02.13

Researchers at the University of Melbourne have made a study that may perhaps answer that most irritating of questions: “how can you listen to that noise?” According to a recent post on The Atlantic, hearing music as beautiful is a learned trait.

In a study called Consonance and Pitch published last month, researchers played both “pure tones” and various chords for participants – a group that comprised of both trained musicians and members of the general public – and had them rate the sounds on a five point scale in terms of perceived dissonance, and familiarity. The musicians were found to be more sensitive to dissonance than the general listeners, but the research also found that when listeners hadn’t previously encountered a certain chord, they could not hear the individual notes that comprised it. These chords sounded dissonant (and therefore unpleasant) to those that did not have the ability to identify the notes.

The ability to enjoy ‘dissonant’ music was positively correlated with chord familiarity and musical training. The results suggest that it is possible to train yourself to appreciate certain types of music, despite its seeming impenetrability.

The researchers conducted a second experiment to test the validity of this theory, taking 19 non-musicians and training them to identify the pitches of particular chords. After ten sessions, the participants reported that they found the chords that they did know to be less dissonant than those they’d not been taught, irrespective of how harmonious they were on a technical level.

According to study author Neil McLachlan, the findings “overturns centuries of theories that physical properties of the ear determine what we find appealing.” They also propose that their conclusions can explain how Western music developed. The do re mi scale, according to the study, is not “naturally” harmonious, and only seems that way because it has evolved into familiar Western chords.

As lovers of both pop and experimental music, the idea that you have to be more familiar with a type of music in order to enjoy it might seem head-slapping obvious, whilst it’s easy to be skeptical of the idea that finding something less dissonant is linked to knowledge of musical theory, but nevertheless an academic study into this area is welcome. There is a discussion taking place in the article’s comment section that seeks to dispute aspects of the study, but it’s all a bit too technical for the non-musicians amongst us.

The full study is available (at a price) at PsychNET.

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