Love of musical harmony is not nature but nurture

February 14, 2013
Love of musical harmony is not nature but nurture

Our love of music and appreciation of musical harmony is learnt and not based on natural ability – a new study by University of Melbourne researchers has found.

Associate Professor Neil McLachlan from the Melbourne School of said previous theories about how we appreciate were based on the physical properties of sound, the ear itself and an innate ability to hear harmony.


"Our study shows that musical harmony can be learnt and it is a matter of training the to hear the sounds," Associate Professor McLachlan said.


"So if you thought that the music of some exotic culture (or Jazz) sounded like the wailing of , it's simply because you haven't learnt to listen by their rules."


The researchers used 66 volunteers with a range of musical training and tested their ability to hear combinations of notes to determine if they found the combinations familiar or pleasing.


"What we found was that people needed to be familiar with sounds created by combinations of notes before they could hear the individual notes. If they couldn't find the notes they found the sound dissonant or unpleasant," he said.


"This finding overturns centuries of theories that physical properties of the ear determine what we find appealing."


Coauthor on the study Associate Professor Sarah Wilson also from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences said the study found that trained musicians were much more sensitive to than non-musicians.


"When they couldn't find the note, the musicians reported that the sounds were unpleasant, whereas non-musicians were much less sensitive," Assoc. Prof Wilson said.


"This highlights the importance of training the brain to like particular variations of combinations of sounds like those found in jazz or rock." 


Depending on their training, a strange chord or a gong sound was accurately pitched and pleasant to some musicians, but impossible to pitch and very unpleasant to others.


"This showed us that even the ability to hear a musical pitch (or note) is learnt," Assoc. Prof Wilson said.


To confirm this finding they trained 19 non- to find the pitches of a random selection of western chords. Not only did the participants ability to hear notes improve rapidly over ten short sessions, afterward they reported that the chords they had learnt sounded more pleasant – regardless of how the chords were tuned.

The question of why some combinations of musical notes are heard as pleasant or unpleasant has long been debated.

"We have shown in this study that for music, beauty is in the brain of the beholder," Assoc. Prof McLachlan said.

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Related Stories

Musical experience offsets some aging effects

May 11, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- A growing body of research finds musical training gives students learning advantages in the classroom. Now a Northwestern University study finds musical training can benefit Grandma, too, by offsetting ...

Music training has biological impact on aging process

January 30, 2012

Age-related delays in neural timing are not inevitable and can be avoided or offset with musical training, according to a new study from Northwestern University. The study is the first to provide biological evidence that ...

Recommended for you

Research grasps how the brain plans gripping motion

July 28, 2015

With the results of a new study, neuroscientists have a firmer grasp on the way the brain formulates commands for the hand to grip an object. The advance could lead to improvements in future brain-computer interfaces that ...

New research rethinks how we grab and hold onto objects

July 28, 2015

It's been a long day. You open your fridge and grab a nice, cold beer. A pretty simple task, right? Wrong. While you're debating between an IPA and a lager, your nervous system is calculating a complex problem: how hard to ...

It don't mean a thing if the brain ain't got that swing

July 27, 2015

Like Duke Ellington's 1931 jazz standard, the human brain improvises while its rhythm section keeps up a steady beat. But when it comes to taking on intellectually challenging tasks, groups of neurons tune in to one another ...

Sleep makes our memories more accessible, study shows

July 27, 2015

Sleeping not only protects memories from being forgotten, it also makes them easier to access, according to new research from the University of Exeter and the Basque Centre for Cognition, Brain and Language. The findings ...

Static synapses on a moving structure: Mind the gap!

July 22, 2015

In biology, stability is important. From body temperature to blood pressure and sugar levels, our body ensures that these remain within reasonable limits and do not reach potentially damaging extremes. Neurons in the brain ...

4 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

MrVibrating
1 / 5 (1) Feb 14, 2013
The authors fall foul of the common and unfortunate conflation of cultural and harmonic consonance and dissonance, the former being subjective, and the latter, objective. Learned predilections for intervals and their cadences are a distinct issue from the informational basis of harmonic perception.

These terms need better defining, hence, rigorously, harmonic consonance and dissonance would be described accurately in terms of sameness and difference, because maximal consonance is equivalence (factor-of-two symmetry) and thus all further harmonic consonances and dissonances are but degrees of inequivalence, or difference.

All multicellular lifeforms hear octaves as two objectively distinct tones, with zero subjective difference. This seeming paradox (resolved above) is a universal basin of attraction to which all multicellular processing is bound.
MrVibrating
1 / 5 (1) Feb 14, 2013
That is to say, all multicellular nervous systems are subject to octave equivalence, or, more properly, factor of two symmetry, and this relationship always represents zero subjective difference, or 'information', in all modalities and for all species.

This is about as innate, intrinsic and inherent a trait as we possess. Let's not confuse it with dialect...
theskepticalpsychic
Feb 14, 2013
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
vlaaing peerd
1 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2013
Terrible, this is 17th century science. Christiaan Huygens and Leonhard Euler have long discovered the mathematical complexity of harmony and melody. Math doesn't grow on trees, it is a learned ability.

Very simply said this research tells that at younger age (or less trained ears) that you appreciate more simple melodies and at a later age (or more developed ears) learn to appreciate more complex and apparently more dissonant music. Bravofor stating the obvious mr scientist...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.