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Monday, February 18, 2013

Hearing Music Is Learned Trait

piano scale image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture blog
Most of us believe that our enjoyment of certain types of music is something that we're born with, but apparently that's not the case. Researchers at the University of Melbourne have found that what we consider to be pleasurable is indeed a learned trait.

The researchers found out that we measure how pleasant a sound is to the ratio of dissonance that we perceive, which provides a degree of "roughness, harshness, unpleasantness, or difficulty of listening to a sound." When listeners in the study (even trained professionals) were played a chord they never heard before, they found it impossible to hear the individual notes that it was comprised of, and therefore it sounded dissonant and unpleasant. After the listeners where trained to identify the pitches present in the chords, they found it less objectionable, even if the chord was technically inharmonious.

It turns out that if we're raised around music based around a certain scale, we come to find that more pleasing than one that we're not exposed to. The Western 12 note "do-re-me" scale is a good example. It was mathematically derived by Pythagorus and not particularly natural, but Westerners adopted it and eventually found it beautiful, yet we have a hard time with semi-tone scales of Indian ragas or Arabic quarter tone intervals.

It's also the reason why a kid who grows up in a house with classical or jazz always playing in the background develops a love for that music, as opposed to someone growing up in a house filled with rock or hip hop.

As with so many other factors, our early environment forms our musical tastes for life. Remember that the next time you play music around your kids.


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Rand Bliss said...

Also perfectly explains why a 3 year old bashing away on a piano is more enamored with his 'compositions' than anyone else;-)

sculley said...

Interesting. I grew up in a house where music wasn't, as I recall, played a lot. My parents didn't have big record collections or much interest in it really. I grew to love the limited amount of classical music that I was exposed to. For a grade 7 party at school, friends brought AC/DC's Back In Black. I brought Beethoven's Sixth Symphony. My cousin's turned me on to the popular music of the early 80's, and by the end of that decade I was getting more into rock. My favorite "rock" band ended up being Sonic Youth. Perhaps an odd "choice" but I've always seen their music/noise as more classical in it's composition, and in fact, they write all the music first and lyrics and melodies are more of an afterthought. However, the music that moves me more than any other is always Classical music.

Brian P. said...

This is rather absurd. The study already showed signs of its origination in the musically and contextually bankrupt theories of Rameau. Only after clicking on the link did I discover that the study was citing Helmholtz, whose theories were descended from Rameau's; big surprise.
Essentially this ignores, and completely misunderstands, dissonance in music. It becomes posited that all these tones are isolated phenomena (at least for this ridiculous argument to work) with no relationship to what precedes or succeeds these pitches.
Of course listeners found a random chord dissonant and unpleasant, if it's played without meaning. Also, how was this chord generated, or voiced, and it what octaves? To Rameau and Helmholtz (the theoretical basis of this study) middle C is the same as the C two octaves up. Anyone who is familiar with vocal polyphony, orchestration, or just a half-decent musician knows this is not true. You'll find in J.S. Bach enough aural evidence to refute these findings, a composer to specifically disagreed with Rameau; in fact the whole Fux>Bach>Mozart>Beethoven lineage!
Using Pythagoras, and its accusations of a scale that is 'not particularly natural' is little dubious.
Who has a hard time with Indian and Arabic tuning? Perhaps those who haven't heard much of it, and even that is rather presumptuous.
This study oversimplifies music and sound, as it ignores music as a language. It further takes an isolated observation, like the cultural difference between using a fork to chop-sticks, and makes a terrible attempt to explain human's taste in food.


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