Medical Mysteries of Music

Me: “Hey, Science! Why Does Music Feel Good?” Science: “Beats Me.”

If you’re reading this, you love listening to music. But why? What is it about music that you find pleasurable? From a scientific point of view, that’s a mystery. From Wired:

YOUR TASTE IN music is weird. Maybe you just can’t stop listening to that power ballad, or you’ve wondered about your bewildering weakness for yodeling. And maybe, just maybe, nobody understands your all-consuming obsession with Steely Dan, the greatest band of all time.

But even with all these differences, neuroscientists have noticed there’s something pretty much everyone agrees on, musically: Some chords sound good—they’re consonant—and other notes grate when they’re played at the same time. Unraveling why that is could explain something basic about how humans perceive the world. Maybe people are just wired that way. Or maybe, as a paper argues today in Nature, it’s a product of human culture.

Yes, this is a nature versus nurture debate. And it’s been raging for centuries, if not millennia. Scientists trace it back to Pythagoras, who theorized about musical intervals in the first place. Over the years, the heavyweights of science and philosophy have chimed in—Galileo, Kepler, Descartes.

Today’s scientists have their own explanations. Maybe it’s the structure of the inner ear, or the neat ratios of frequencies in harmonious chords. Or maybe dissonant chords sound dissonant because of something called roughness: If you were to simultaneously play two notes right next to each other on a piano—a C and a C-sharp, say—their sound waves would clash in a jarring, unpleasant way.

Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38321 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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