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Name: Tyler
Location: Mountain View, California, United States

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Music and emotion

I've always been curious about why certain musical entities "feel" a certain way to most people -- for example, why does a major chord feed nicer than a minor, or just a bunch of other random notes?

For elements of feeling which seem to be built in for most people, it makes sense to look for an evolutionary cause. Here are two possibilities that might relate our backgrounds with our current musical interpretations:

(1) Rising vs. dropping pitch. Usually when you hear an increasing pitch, it's associated with increasing anticipation, while decreasing notes often reflect a release or departure. Simple examples include the half-note rising motive of the Jaws theme, or the ultimate farewell denoted by Chopin's falling funeral march. Perhaps these connotations could have arisen from the natural Doppler effect -- when a predator is approaching, or we are approaching prey, any noises from the nearing object will be increasing in pitch, while if our prey is escaping or we from a predator, the pitch is decreasing.

(2) Major and similar "nice" chords vs. dissonance. It seems to me that many "nice-sounding" chords are composed of pitch spectrums which could occur naturally as the overtones of a single sound-producer, while more dissonant progressions have less natural frequency ratios. In nature, we could associate something like a major chord with a single producer -- be it friend or foe, it is easy to understand and work with. Dissonance could only arise from a large group (who are not inclined to speak in pitch). So our sense of harmony among chords might have some foundation in the mere plurality vs unity of a sound-producing unit.

I'd be interested to see more work along these lines. Perhaps if we can physiologically or evolutionarily understand why some things sound good to us, and others less so, we could be more conscious of how to make good music :) with more awareness than the current traditional teachings -- which I think are more historically based than scientifically discovered -- would otherwise encourage.


Blogger Mike said...

I'd be curious to see some research that takes into account cultural heritage as well. I would imagine that at least some of the preference is not so much genetic as it is learned from earliest childhood.

6:12 AM  
Blogger t said...

That makes a lot of sense. For example, genetics can't explain why parents often hate their kids' music :) and sometimes vice versa!

I wonder if we could "train" young apes to enjoy different genre's and then watch their reactions or different styles of creativity as adults. You could also do a passive version of this experiment on humans, too -- but then you have to worry about did the music cause the human's stylistic choices, or vice versa? If it's an active experiment (i.e. we choose the music each subject listens to) then we can eliminate one direction of causality and directly focus on the influence of music or other cultural elements.

1:11 PM  

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