By Stephen Strauss
Globe & Mail 9/17/96
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 as unnatural.
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 ago.
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 sounds.
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 as harmonious.
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." she said.
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.
Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles