Our brains learn to love music’s harmony

U. MELBOURNE (AUS) — The ability to appreciate harmony in music may be a learned—not innate—skill, new research suggests.

Previous theories about how we appreciate music have been based on the physical properties of sound, the ear itself, and a natural ability to hear harmony, says Neil McLachlan, an associate professor in the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

“Our study shows that musical harmony can be learned and it is a matter of training the brain to hear the sounds,” says McLachlan.

“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 learned 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,” McLachlan explains.

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

Sarah Wilson, study co-author and associate professor in the School of Psychological Sciences, says the findings indicate 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,” says Wilson.

“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.

Wilson says this indicates that even the ability to hear a musical pitch (or note) is learned.

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 learned 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,” says McLachlan.

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

Source: University of Melbourne