Musical appreciation is a function of conditioning

Turn it off!

Here’s something that will tickle those of us whose taste in music runs the gamut from “noisy” to “for heaven’s sake, can you turn that bloody racket off, it’s making my ears bleed”.  Ever heard the argument that certain types of music are just objectively nicer to listen to than others?  That certain harmonic patterns are superior to other ones?  That your love of the spicy stuff goes against some kind of musical “natural order”?

Well, now Australian researchers have shown that your ability to enjoy certain types of music is a product of nurture rather than nature.  It seems that the brain’s ability to comprehend and appreciate certain types of harmonies is not, as was previously suspected, a characteristic of the harmonies themselves, but in fact a function of conditioning.  In other words, if you were brought up in a house filled with free jazz, you are much more likely to find free jazz pleasant to listen to.  The same, I imagine, goes for Schoenberg.

According to Associate Professor Neil McLachlan, who led the study at the University of Melbourne, subjects found it easier to distinguish individual notes within compositions if they were familiar with the harmonies.  If the harmonies were new to their ears, they found it hard to hear individual notes and therefore found the music “unpleasant”.

The good news is that with only ten short sessions of “conditioning”, subjects were more able to find notes within unusual chords, and thus began to find such music more appealing.  So it turns out all that Xenakis and Stockhausen they made us listen to at University did open our ears.

More on this story here.

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One thought on “Musical appreciation is a function of conditioning

  1. Gab Thomas

    There was a study quite a while ago (at least ten years?) that looked at people’s reactions to ‘un-Western’ music (I think Indonesian), before and after some of the group were slowly exposed to more of it. I think the group that heard more of it still found it a bit weird by the end of the study, but they liked it better.

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