Do humans have an innate sense of melody?

I’m not sure which forum to place this in, here or in CS.

A while ago, my guitar teacher had me play a chord repeatedly, and then played individual notes from a scale over the top of the chord. Some notes sounded nice when played over the chord, but a few clashed horribly.

Is our sense as to what sounds “nice” with regards to music innate, or is it cultural?


I take a cop-out by recommending books, but they’re the best resource:

The Sounds of Music: Perception and Notation
Gerald Eskelin

Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination
Rbert Jourdain

If you’ve ever listened to my roommate try to sing along with any music, you’ll realize that clearly not everyone has an innate sense of melody. :wink:

From what I remember from middle school, two or more notes that have frequencies with common factors (i.e. two notes that are one octave apart, one having double the frequency of the other) will sound harmonious, while two notes with irrational frequencies (i.e. C and F#) won’t sound as nice. Musical scales are set up to have many combinations of harmonious notes. So at least that part of music seems to be innate.

A certain portion is definitely cultural. Most western cultures use the familiar 12-tone scale, while many eastern cultures use other scales which may sound different and strange because of the different harmonies and melodies used.

KJ (and Pythagoras 2500 years before him) is quite right: double the frequency (ie. increase f by 100%) of a tone and it sounds an octave higher. Furthermore, increase it by 33% and you’ll hear a fourth, while increase it by 50% and you’ll get a fifth. These notes are said to be consonant.

Other increases may not sound so pleasant, especially if two tones are close together in frequency - this is known as dissonance. This is partly down to interference on the basilar membrane and partly cultural, as Garfield suggests (although those eastern scales still use octaves, fourths and fifths - they just divide the rest up a little differently).

Unless you had never heard much music before, it’s hard to say how much is innate, and how much is cultural.

There seems to be a “window” of time during childhood, in which you’re exposed to the music of a particular culture, after which it’s really hard to make sense of it. Chances are, if you heard traditional Asian music (written before any Western influences crept in), your brain wouldn’t be able to integrate the sounds into anything meaningful.