Why is music pleasant?

Why does music written in key sound pleasant to humans? Is it innate or learned? Why are rhythmic sounds pleasing? It seems unique to our species - do any animals appreciate human-produced music? Birds ‘sing,’ of course, but not in key, and the ‘songs’ don’t have resolution. If we are alone in liking music, is there a Darwinian explanation?

Purely specualtion here, but I think it has to do with order and patterns that we recognize, but rather than something visual it is simply another sense doing the same thing, much the same way that your eyes do.

Some of it has to do with language acquisition, that in order to respond to early language development cues, cadence, rhythm, dynamics (volume changes), and vocal tone/note make a difference. Maternal-to-fetal responses (and back again) have a huge feedback system, encouraging repetition and reflection, which affects the whole neurobiology of the brain. Without that feedback (as one part of a whole-system response, tactile, auditory, and visual), we don’t learn to relate well to one-another, cannot parse/comprehend others’ emotions, etc. (Proven by looking at attachment disorders that stem from situations where the feedback isn’t provided or is ineffectively provided.)

I recall that when my older son started showing a strong tendencey to sing and hum instead of making ‘talking-like noises’, I looked around and found some research that indicated that musical process is fundamental to verbal expression, and both the strong music (but non-talking) behavior and the ‘talking-like’ behavior expressed natively in infants at the same time. Only the patterns that were reinforced remained after a period of time (in general), and the music pattern often extincted as a self-initiated pattern unless the child heard music (like lullabyes, etc.). It was only after reading this info that I realized that I seldom ‘talked’ to him, but was always singing to him, even in little interactions around diaper changes and eating, and I tended to respond with song back to his song-like sounds. That was the rewarded behavior.

Why it has to be in key? No idea. But why we like it at all is that it lights up the same processes that are essential in developing our human-to-human language interactions and emotion-processing.

As for ‘key’ in general, isn’t it kind of strange to say that birds don’t sing in key? Maybe their ‘key’ set is different than ours? I would think that they would have a particular response to sounds that fit within their developmental frame, wouldn’t you? Any animal that uses vocalizations will respond to vocalizations within the patterns it is biologically engineered to employ for communication, even ‘just’ signal-based communication (not ‘language’). Ours happens to include the designation for ‘key’ - theirs probably does, too.

See this article on this topic in Discover Magazine.

BTW what is “in key” can differ across cultures. Indian and Japanese music are different than Western music.

The reason that Western music sounds good in key is due to the mathematical relatonships among the frequencies. A note played at 440 Hz also generates overtones at whole-number multiples of the frequency and certain ratios of the frequency. So another note played with it that is one of its overtones reinforces the series and sounds consonant, with a constant amplitude. OTOH, a note of 440 Hz played at the same time as one a half-step higher (440*(2^-12)) will provide a pulsating tone (“beats”) that we find unpleasant at certain rates.

Now why we respond the way we do is something I can’t tell you, that’s a cognitive psych questions.

Sure, there was a human bias in my post, but I do have a defense for it, mentioned by CookingWithGas - the relationships among notes in a key (all Western keys, and I think all keys, regardless of culture, are a subset of the Chromatic scale - at least in terms of relative pitches - correct me if I’m wrong) are real - the frequencies are related in simple ways. A human recognizes a tone at exactly 1.5 times a frequency or exactly twice the frequency readily - and the tones are pleasing to hear in succession. If a bird has its own ‘key,’ the relationships among tones aren’t so readily seen.

That Discover article is cool - thanks.

Since this is about music, I’ll move this thread to Cafe Society.

moderator GQ

Music keeps one ‘in the moment’.
When listening to it, you cannot easily ‘think ahead’ or ‘behind’, but you are forced to stay in the present.

Also, it teaches you about silence. Not only are the notes meaningful, but so is the silence between them.

That is truly knowing ‘the present’.

… those relationships aren’t recognized by humans, again.

Frequency measurement (the numbers) is based on what we heard and assigned to those numbers when we were determining the scale of measurement. Hence the simplicity of the relationship between tone and frequency - the scale of measurement was established by a human with a human ear. The scale of measurement isn’t set by God, nor is it a universal absolute. We assign numbers to specific frequencies. Why? Because they make sense to us. Hence, turning it the other way, frequencies will relate to one another in our measurements in a rational way. It was set up that way.

Humans all having the same system, would respond in a similar way, regardless of culture.

Hmmm. I may be wrong on the last point. Frequency as a number of cycles per second… the number of cycles doesn’t change based on who is listening. Okay, so toss that one aside as complete brain mush (really, it made sense when I wrote it!).

Still, have you measured the tones in a bird song, to see if they make sense in some way (say, 1.25 times, consistantly, is seen as pleasing or recognizably related?)? Perhaps there is an obvious relationship, but how would you measure whether the bird found it pleasing? Or perhaps they just can’t hear themselves sing very well (just like a lot of humans) and think all the other birds are off-key, but THEY sound great. How would you know?

I’ve never seen a convincing argument that “pleasing music” isn’t a simple matter of acculturation. You don’t need to know much about the history of music to know that many of the “greats” were roundly trashed by their contemporaries as cacophonous because their music did not conform to the narrow cultural norms of the day.

Well, birds do use their calls for communication. They must have some sense of what they sound like - especially in the species that mimic other sounds (like the mockingbird in our neighborhood that does a pretty convincing car alarm).

I’d like to see graphs of the frequencies of bird calls - I don’t know where to find them. I suspect the relative frequencies are not in some simple relationship (like 1.25 times, which would still sound in key to a human).

And we haven’t even tackled rhythm.

I don’t see how the first sentence follows from the second.

Anyway, maybe ‘pleasing’ is not the best word - I don’t mean critically acclaimed. At least it’s recognized as music*. What I mean is that at least humans respond to things that have sound patterns in them in ways that I don’t see animals respond. That’s what I’d like to get answered.

A dog doesn’t seem to register if there’s classical, jazz, rock, or children’s music on - at all. It could care less.

Do any primates (besides humans) show any opinion of music, as distinct from random noise? Or any animal?

*Yes, I’m aware that one of the cliched archetypes is the old white guy with jowls screaming ‘that’s not music!’ - I don’t think the cliched archetype is speaking literally. At least he recognizes it’s supposed to be music.

Bup, looking back, I might have been a little thrown off by your use of the terms pleasing and pleasant in the OP, and your suggested caveat that only music “written in key” was pleasing. To my mind these are artistic value judgements, and therefore unlikely to be agreed upon across cultures.

I think the question “Why do humans enjoy music?” is a perfectly valid question, but I think it’s no different than the question “Why do humans enjoy poetry, paintings, or sculpture?”

I don’t think these are very easy questions to answer succinctly - I think almost all areas of human psychology could be invoked in explanation - but I will say I still think it’s mainly a matter of acculturation.

I also think humans are easily impressed by their own cleverness. :wink: