Saturday, November 17, 2012

Music music music

Music is a strange phenomenon. Western music, at least, is all about mathematical ratios. From these arise our perceptions of harmony and discord. But it is a mystery to me why such things should affect us in any way. Why does it sound unpleasant or unsatisfying when there is disharmony? And why does it sound pleasant, even beautiful, when there is harmony? Why does a particular sequence of notes please us, while others can leave us feeling dissatisfied? Why is the resolution of a chord at the end of a symphony so satisfying? Why does a minor chord evoke sadness? Having spent some time as an evolutionary biologist, I confess to being mystified by the evolution of this musical capacity. Charles Darwin was similarly stumped. He once wrote, “As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least use to man ... they must be ranked amongst the most mysterious with which he is endowed” (The Descent of Man).

There is almost certainly something in our neural structure that makes us respond to music. I’m sure we have all experienced the inability to get a particular tune (even a very annoying one!) out of our head. It seems to resonate in some way within our neurons, running round and round in an endless loop. Arthur C. Clarke once wrote a story entitled “The Ultimate Melody” (published in Tales from the White Hart, 1957). In this story, a scientist has a similar theory. He undertakes to create the perfect melody, the perfect “hook” if you like. He apparently succeeds, resulting in a catatonic state. So beware of those song writers and music producers out there. We now understand their ultimate goal!

It may be that the evolution of this musical capacity is just a side effect of other things which have more immediate implications for human survival, such as speech recognition, or the differentiation between various animal calls. If so, it is a very happy accident indeed.

For those interested in this question, the following not-too-scientific paper in Nature contains an interesting discussion.

Recent Review
I would like to recommend a nice short science fiction story by Charlotte Gordon: Soul Mates. Read my review at

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