As a teenager, blasting the stereo was always punctuated by my parents’ never-ending refrain: “You call that music?” Now I can say that not only does science call it music, but I can also explain why I like it.
Scientists studied the preferences of 250 college students who listened to a variety of musical and nonmusical sounds. They found that what made the sounds appealing had to do with whether frequencies are in harmony with each other.
The study is published online today in the journal Current Biology.
Harmonic frequencies are multiples of the same frequency played together. For example, sounds at 400, 600 and 800 hertz are all multiples of 200. The researchers also studied something called “beating.” Beating happens when two sounds are close but not on the same frequency — or not in harmony with each other. Played over time, beating produces a “wobbly” sound.
Beating actually didn’t have much of an effect on whether a sound was considered pleasant or unpleasant, the researchers said.
However, student’s with a musical background appeared to have more sensitive ears. Those who had studied music were more likely to be responsive to and have a preference for changes in harmonic frequencies.
“The question is: What makes certain combinations of musical notes pleasant or unpleasant?” said Josh McDermott in a press release. Now at New York University, McDermott conducted the studies at the University of Minnesota. “There have been a lot of claims. It might be one of the oldest questions in perception.”
McDermott and his colleagues did say that people in different cultures could very well yield different results.
“Listeners with different experience might well have different preferences,” he said. “Intervals and chords that are dissonant by Western standards are fairly common in some cultures.”
Now if I could only get my parents tuned in to the harmonic frequencies of hip hop.
Image from Flickr.