Canadian and U S. psychologists have come to the aid
of those who believe that the human ear, not to mention the human soul,
is biologically attuned to appreciate harmonious music.
Furthermore, their two new studies lend credence to those
who argue that the 20th century's atonal music has failed to grab a wide
audience not just because it is new, but because the brain perceives it
The Canadian research, conducted by Glenn Schellenberg
of the University of Windsor and Sandra Trehub of the University of Toronto
and published in this month's issue of Psychological Science, studied 90
infants, some as young as six months old. The question was how do children
respond to the pure tone changes.
The Greek philosopher Pythagoras first described these
natural harmonies as being fundamentally pleasing more than 2,500 years
An octave, the notes of the scale, and certain harmonics
such as the so-called "golden 5th," where the "so"
and "do" notes are sounded together, are examples of these consonant
The consonant tones, sounds generally associated with
the words "in tune" and prevalent in Western music ranging as
far afield as Beethoven and Motown, were able to readily attract the attention
of the infants being held on the parents' laps.
At the same time, the children hardly responded to the
more dissonant combinations -- for example, C and F sharp played together.
These out-of-tune sounding notes are often used by atonal composers such
as Schoenberg and Berg, not to mention rap groups such as Public Enemy.
The same response to consonants has been noted by the
two Canadians in studies of adults and young people.
In a companion study published on Sept. 5 in the British
journal Nature, Harvard University psychologists Jerome Kagan and Marcel
Zentner studied the response of 32 infants, some as young as four months
old. The Harvard researchers found that the children seemed calmer and
more content when harmonious sounds were played.
The out-of-tune sounds produced not just looks of disgust,
but the infants would look away, cry, fret and not even look at the speaker,
Prof. Kagan told the Reuters News Agency.
The meaning of the findings remains controversial. The
Canadians believe that the simplest explanation for their work is that
the musical scales that are found in societies around the world are not
cultural artifacts but natural apparitions. The infants' responses are
"entirely consistent with dominance of musical scales with simple
frequency ratios throughout history and across cultures," they write.
The golden note combinations and octaves are everywhere.
"I haven't found a musical system which doesn't have a perfect fifth,"
Prof. Trehub said in an interview. Even something as notoriously dissonant
as a bagpipe has perfect fifth tones droning underneath its sounds.
In some music systems, notably that of Javanese music,
the perfect fifth is a little less perfect than other places, but Prof.
Schellenberg believes that it is close enough for the ear to perceive it
The evolutionary benefit of hearing and liking harmonious
notes is unclear. Prof. Schellenberg points out they are tones that underlie
human speech and thus paying special attention to them may act as a kind
of primer to infants understanding speech.
Prof. Trehub points out that how a song is sung can dramatically
influence what it sounds like. "I have heard a lot of mothers singing
lullabies around the world, and let me assure you, you wouldn't want to
learn about pitch levels by the way a mother sings to her child."
Perhaps the most contentious issue is what the new findings
say about the relationship of atonal to tonal music. Schoenberg contended
that when people became familiar with it, his atonal music would eventually
become as popular as tonal music.
The Canadians say their findings does not mean one musical
form is biologically better than another. Consonance does start out with
some distinct advantages.
"I would say that [atonal music] is not inherently
pleasing and that you would really have to work to get to appreciate it,"
Prof. Trehub said.
However, that is just what people who like atonal music
do, she added.