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Why does music sound good? Science still doesn't know


When it seems like every species of human wonder has been demystified by neurologists and biologists, it’s nice to learn that one of the oldest and most ubiquitous sources of wonder—music—is still largely a mystery to science. As Chelsea Leu reports in Wired, neuroscientists have many theories for why certain collections of notes bring us pleasure while others make us cringe, but they are far from reaching a consensus. Is it mostly nature or mostly nurture? Do indigenous tribes that have never been exposed to Western music find the same tones pleasurable that we do? Leu raises these and other questions in her fascinating piece. Here’s an excerpt:

Other neuroscientists, though, think that all this talk of nature or nurture props up a false dichotomy. “Music tastes vary even within a culture, and part of the reason for that is difference in experience,” says Tecumseh Fitch, a cognitive biologist at the University of Vienna. “No one would ever doubt that.” You could find a collection of death metalheads or Jimi Hendrix fans or Schoenberg enthusiasts, he says, and they might all say they love tritones.

So culture plays a role, yes. But Fitch and other scientists point to a raft of evidence that show that a preference for consonance is innate. Babies, for example, stare longer at speakers playing consonant music than dissonant. (McDermott, for his part, doesn’t find that evidence convincing—those babies could’ve been exposed to Western music, he says, even in the few months they’d been alive.)

Or, even more fundamentally, animal studies! Fitch points to experiments that show certain species of bird prefer to sing at consonant intervals, or that baby chicks were more likely to imprint on objects making consonant sounds. And Robert Zatorre, a researcher at the Montreal Neurological Institute, notes that the neurons of macaques responded differently to dissonant chords in a column responding to the paper. “It would be hard to argue that this effect is mediated by the monkeys’ musical culture,” he writes.

Image: Steely Dan, 1974