Is musical beauty in the brain of the beholder?

(Or how to appreciate Birtwistle in ten short sessions)

Our love of music and appreciation of musical harmony is learnt and not based on any innate natural ability according to a new study by researchers at the University of Melbourne.

Associate Professor Neil McLachlan from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences said that previous theories about how we appreciate music 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 brain to hear the sounds,” McLachlan said. “So if you thought that the music of some exotic culture (or jazz) sounded like the wailing of cats, it’s simply because you haven’t learnt to listen by their rules.”

The report adds further support to arguments in favour of a broad-based, practical musical education (see Richard Gill's recent Limelight article). The research suggests that even relatively limited exposure to certain combinations of notes helps to develop an understanding of complex harmony. In other words, if you struggle the first time with The Rite of Spring, just pop it on repeat and you’ll be on your way.

The researchers used 66 volunteers with a wide 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 research discovered that trained musicians were much more sensitive to dissonance 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,” she 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,” Wilson said.

To confirm this finding they trained 19 non-musicians 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,” said Associate Professor McLachlan.

The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

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Is musical beauty in the brain of the beholder?
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