The Immortal Laws of Music

Are Our Preferences Due to Nature or Nurture?

According to a new study, the music of Mozart and Strauss can lower blood lipid concentrations and the heart rate. A 2016 paper on the effect of different musical genres on the cardiovascular system, published in Deutsches Ärzteblatt International (German Medical Society), showed that Mozart and Strauss music amazingly lowered blood pressure and heart rate, whereas there was no discernible effect for the songs of the pop band ABBA used as the control group (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016 /06/160620112512.htm).

When the seventeenth century playwright William Congreve wrote, “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,” he could hardly have anticipated that four centuries later, ‘music’ would become what some might consider a threat to society, not so much a ‘soother,’ but a virtual aggravator of the ‘savage.’ Has the unquestioned power of music now been turned to ill effect and used for something far removed from its original purpose? This is a question of interest now to many researchers.

A study by the American Psychological Association found that songs with violent lyrics increase aggression related thoughts and emotions, and this effect is directly related to the violence in the lyrics. That is the finding of a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. And while the effect of song lyrics can be demonstrably negative, many believe the rhythms and the music itself constitute the force that drives the message deep into the listener’s subconscious mind. The ancients certainly believed that music in the wrong hands could be a very destructive force, even as they also believed that it played a fundamental role in the health of society (http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2003/05/violent-songs.aspx).

Harmony, thought the ancient Greek philosophers, was an essential ingredient in any kind of beauty, especially music. Beauty, they believed, was what we see or hear when the various components of the world are presented in disciplined alignment with the underlying principles of nature, which, they believed, were self-evident. The Greeks believed that simple ratios in the string lengths of musical instruments were the key, maintaining that the precise mathematical relationships endowed certain chords with a special, even divine, quality. Twentieth and twenty-first century composers, on the other hand, have leaned toward the notion that musical tastes are really all in what you are used to hearing. For these, the traditional ideas of music are nothing more than an ‘old school’ superstition, one superseded by sophisticated, and ‘superior,’ modern understandings. Not only has the present culture virtually rejected harmony itself as an objective, it has, instead, offered up ‘music and art’ of the most chaotic, discordant, and violent variety—permitting it to assault our senses without restraint. It doesn’t take a dystopian to suspect that the ultimate effect could be very destructive.

 

What Sounds Good

Recent research, however, appears to challenge some of the modern stereotypes of the popular culture, especially regarding music, and to offer new validation for some very ancient ideas. According to several researchers cited by science reporter Philip Ball in the journal Nature in 2012, “the aversion most people feel to dissonant music like that of such modernist composers as Arnold Schoenberg, depends on the ‘harmonicity’ of the notes being played,” not on what some have claimed was cultural bias.

“One study proposes,” reported Ball, “that in fact we prefer consonant chords for a different reason, connected to the mathematical relationship between the many different frequencies that make up the sound.” Marion Cousineau, a Cognitive neuroscientist of the University of Montreal in Quebec, and a team studied these theories for preferences about consonance and dissonance by comparing the responses of a control group of people with normal hearing to those of people with ‘amusia’—an inability to distinguish between different musical tones.

Consonant chords are, roughly speaking, made up of notes that ‘sound good’ together, like middle C and the G above it (an interval called a fifth). Dissonant chords are combinations that sound jarring, like middle C and the C sharp above (a minor second). The reason why we would like one but not the other has long vexed both musicians and cognitive scientists.

It has often been suggested that humans have innate preferences for consonance over dissonance, leading some to conclude that music in which dissonance features prominently is violating a natural law and is bound to sound bad. Others, including Schoenberg himself, have argued that dissonance is merely a matter of convention and that we can learn to love it.

However, says Ball, there has long been thought to be a physiological reason why at least some kinds of dissonance sound jarring. Two tones close in frequency interfere to produce ‘beating’: what we hear is just a single tone rising and falling in loudness. If the difference in frequency is within a certain range, rapid beats create a rattling sound called roughness. An aversion to roughness has seemed consistent with the common dislike of intervals such as minor seconds.

Yet when Cousineau and colleagues asked ‘amusic’ subjects to rate the pleasantness of a whole series of intervals, they showed no distinctions between any of the intervals. In contrast, normal-hearing people rated small intervals (minor seconds and major seconds, such as C–D) and large but sub-octave intervals (minor sevenths C–B flat) and major sevenths (C–B) as very unpleasant—out of harmony.

Then the researchers tested how both groups felt about beating. They found that the amusics could hear it and disliked it about as much as the control group. So apparently something else was causing the latter to dislike the dissonant intervals.

“Rock bands often deliberately introduce roughness and dissonance into their sounds, much to the delight of their audiences.”

Those preferences, say the researchers, seem to stem from the so-called harmonicity of consonant intervals. Notes contain many overtones—frequencies that are whole-number multiples of the basic frequency in the note. For consonant intervals the overtones of the two notes tend to coincide as whole-number multiples, whereas for dissonant intervals this is no longer the case: they look more like the irregular overtones for sounds that are ‘inharmonic,’ such as metal being struck.

The control group preferred consonant intervals with these regular harmonic relationships over artificial ‘consonant’ ones in which the overtones were subtly shifted to be inharmonic while the basic tones remained the same. The amusics, meanwhile, registered no difference between the two cases: they seem insensitive to harmonicity. (http://www.nature.com/news/why-dissonant-music-strikes-the-wrong-chord-in-the-brain-1.11791)

 

The Universal Language of Music

Native African people who have never even listened to the radio before can nonetheless pick up on happy, sad, and fearful emotions in Western music, according to a new report published online in Current Biology. The result shows that the expression of those three basic emotions in music can be universally recognized, the researchers said.

“These findings could explain why Western music has been so successful in global music distribution, even in music cultures that do not as strongly emphasize the role of emotional expression in their music,” said Thomas Fritz of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

The expression of emotions is a basic feature of Western music, and the capacity of music to convey emotional expressions is often regarded as a prerequisite to its appreciation in Western cultures, the researchers explained. In other musical traditions, however, music is often appreciated for other qualities, such as group coordination in rituals.

In the new study, Fritz, Stefan Koelsch, and their colleagues wanted to find out whether people who had no prior exposure to Western music could appreciate the emotional aspects of it. Previous studies had asked similar questions about people with little experience with a particular musical form, for instance Westerners listening to Hindustani music, they said. But to really get at musical universals requires participants who are completely naïve to Western music.

Fritz enlisted members of the Mafa, one of about 250 ethnic groups in the African nation of Cameroon. He traveled to the extreme north of the Mandara mountain ranges, where they live, with a laptop and sun collector to supply electricity in his backpack.

Their studies showed that both Western and Mafa listeners, who had never before heard Western music, could recognize emotional expressions of happiness, sadness, and fear in the music more often than would be expected by chance. However, they report that the Mafa showed considerable variability in their performance, with two of twenty-one study participants performing at chance level.

Both groups relied on similar characteristics of music to make those calls; both Mafas and Westerners relied on temporal cues and on mode for their judgment of emotional expressions, although this pattern was more marked in Western listeners.

By manipulating music, the researchers also found that both Western listeners and African listeners find original music more pleasant than altered versions. That preference is probably explained in part by the increased sensory dissonance of the manipulated tunes.

“In conclusion,” the researchers wrote, “both Mafa and Western listeners showed an ability to recognize the three basic emotional expressions tested in this study from Western music to be above chance level. This indicates that these emotional expressions conveyed by the Western musical excerpts can be universally recognized, similar to the largely universal recognition of human emotional facial expression and emotional prosody.” Prosody refers to the rhythm, stress, and intonation of connected speech. (http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(09)00813-6)

 

The Music of the Spheres

In January 2015, author Julie Loar wrote for Atlantis Rising #114 about the ancient Greek understanding of music: “Musica Universalis, or the “Music of the Spheres,” is an ancient philosophical concept that sees the proportions of the movements of celestial bodies—Sun, Moon and planets—as a form of musica, the Medieval Latin name for music. This music is not audible but is understood as a mathematical concept. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras is usually credited with this idea, which stemmed from his mystical and mathematical philosophy and its associated system of numerology. The discovery of the geometric relationship between mathematics and music within the Classical Period is also attributed to him. Pythagoreans believed this relationship gave music powers of healing as it could “harmonize” the out-of-balance body.

“There is a legend that Pythagoras could hear the Music of the Spheres, enabling him to discover that consonant musical intervals can be expressed in simple ratios of small integers. In an effort to win their confidence, Pythagoras told Egyptian priests that the god Thoth gave him the ability to hear this “music.” He believed that only Egyptians of the right bloodline, passing successful initiations, could enter the temples and learn the mysteries set in place by divine beings at the beginning of time. Plato and others transferred Pythagoras’ concepts into structural models of the universe assigning the Platonic solids to the planets and alchemical elements: Earth-tetrahedron, Water-cube, Air-Octahedron, Fire-dodecahedron, and Quintessence-icosahedron. The spheres were thought to relate to whole-number ratios of pure musical intervals, creating harmonies.”

In a chaotic world where discord seems to dominate, there are few who think that could change, but the late John Michell remained optimistic. Dissonant music, he said, “will overcome itself.” In a 1995 interview with Atlantis Rising, editor Doug Kenyon explained, “It has always been recognized that music is the most powerful of the arts. As Plato said, forms of government eventually follow the forms of music. That’s why the ancients were very careful in controlling music—no cacophony was allowed. The same music was heard at festivals every year and people were held under a kind of enchantment where the mind was held under one influence. Music is by far the most powerful means for therapy. Certainly the music—and the other art forms too—we see now threatens chaos in society. It’s a vessel that not only reflects what happens but also actually determines what will happen. As to what will come about, I have no idea. I think more and more it’s in the hands of God and that there is now working out an alchemical process and that changes come about through nature—through the natural process of cause and effect. Things are chaotic and we have a reaction and a yearning for a source of order—there’s a quest for that and an invocation of that, and then there follows a revelation.”

 

SIDEBAR:

Historian Cracks “the Plato Code”

Manchester University Press Release, June 2010

A science historian at The University of Manchester in the United Kingdom has cracked “The Plato Code”—the long disputed secret messages hidden in the great philosopher’s writings.

Plato was the Einstein of Greece’s Golden Age and his work founded Western culture and science. Dr. Jay Kennedy’s findings, says a Manchester University press release are set to revolutionize the history of the origins of Western thought.

Kennedy, whose findings were published in the leading US journal Apeiron, reveals that Plato used a regular pattern of symbols, inherited from the ancient followers of Pythagoras, to give his books a musical structure. A century earlier, Pythagoras had declared that the planets and stars made an inaudible music, a ‘harmony of the spheres.’ Plato imitated this hidden music in his books.

The hidden codes show that Plato anticipated the Scientific Revolution 2,000 years before Isaac Newton, discovering its most important idea—the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics. The decoded messages also open up a surprising way to unite science and religion. The awe and beauty we feel in nature, Plato says, shows that it is divine; discovering the scientific order of nature is getting closer to God. This could transform today’s culture wars between science and religion.

“Plato’s books played a major role in founding Western culture but they are mysterious and end in riddles,” Dr. Kennedy, on Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences explains. “In antiquity, many of his followers said the books contained hidden layers of meaning and secret codes, but this was rejected by modern scholars.

“It is a long and exciting story, but basically I cracked the code. I have shown rigorously that the books do contain codes and symbols and that unraveling them reveals the hidden philosophy of Plato. “This is a true discovery, not simply reinterpretation.”

 

Manchester University Press Release June 2010

By Martin Ruggles