I fear many people won’t read beyond this sentence if I tell you that there’s a really interesting series of articles about music in this week’s New Scientist magazine.
Our appreciation of rhythm, melody and harmony almost certainly have evolutionary benefits, from the simple call and response melodies of birds to elaborate combinations of sounds that characterise human mating rituals. Still, as always with humans there’s a ghost in the machine that allows us to appreciate music for its pure beauty, beyond a simple mechanism for attracting sexual partners and nurturing tribal instincts. Maybe I wanted to be in a band as an adolescent to impress impressionable girls, but I still strummed guitars endlessly for the pure pleasure of it.
The physics of music is another source of interest. Why is it that we perceive two notes an octave apart to have the same quality of pitch? One tone with double the frequency of another sounds the same. At least, the same but higher or lower. Is this a universal truth? Probably not – starlings apparently can’t recognise a tune that’s been transposed by an octave.
It’s also interesting how playing two tones with a frequency ratio of 5:4 (a major third) sounds ‘happy’, but a ratio of 6:5 (a minor third) sounds ’sad’. Is this peculiar to humans? Are we born with this perception, or is it learned? Do all cultures respond to this tonal relationship in the same way? I have no idea. If you know, please tell me.
When I was very young (pre-school age) I’d listen to Abbey Road by the Beatles on my Dad’s enourmous 70s headphones and experience pure, utter joy. I still love that album now and although I must perceive it in a completely different way, I still get a rush of endorphins from it. The strange thing is, I can remember first responding to music as if it was already familiar. Perhaps in the same way that people see faces everywhere, maybe our fragile brains made music in the womb from heartbeats and gurgles.