Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Genes Are Us

music-patterns

(Photo: Tarchyshnik Andrei/Shutterstock)

How Language Helps Us Understand Music Without Words

• December 30, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(Photo: Tarchyshnik Andrei/Shutterstock)

Without harmony, our brains don’t know what to hear.

For most of us, on those rare occasions when we listen to classical music, we prefer composers who wrote before the 20th century. At the symphony we find the music of Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert much more pleasing and comprehensible than the jarring dissonances of Luciano Berio and Arnold Schönberg. The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, in his history of modern classical music, wrote that this music “sounds like noise to many.” Although a century has passed since the composition of many pioneering works of 20th century music, it “still sends ripples of unease through concert audiences.”

The composers of this modern music often believed that, compared to the consonant harmonies of Mozart and Bach, their works were a more convincing representation our inner psychological states. But the results of a recent study indicate that traditional harmonies are more naturally perceived by our brains. A team of researchers at the Free University of Berlin found that we perceive music in much the same way that we perceive language—and that traditional musical harmonies usually sound better to us because they play to our brain’s innate ability to perceive patterns in music.

Perhaps humans find music so universally compelling because it speaks to our natural cognitive strengths.

A key feature of how we process language is our ability to capture “non-local dependencies,” which is a technical way of saying that we naturally assemble larger units of meaning by composing phrases and sentences from smaller building blocks. We effortlessly parse the meaning of the sentence: “Stealing the eggs from an enraged, 10-foot crocodile is a delicate operation.” We grasp the main point that “stealing the eggs … is a delicate operation,” even though nested within that main point is a phrase elaborating that the eggs are taken from a large, angry reptile.

These kinds of hierarchical grammatical structures come naturally to us when we speak. Do our brains work the same way when we listen to music?

STEFAN KOELSCH AND HIS colleagues in Berlin set out to test the idea that we naturally perceive complex structures in music, much like we perceive the same kinds of structure in language. The researchers began with the observation that composers deliberately put meaningful, large-scale patterns into their music. As in language, larger meaning in music is made up of small units. A piece is written in a particular key, and the moment-by-moment harmonies of the piece reinforce that key. Composers of almost any kind of music invest substantial effort into creating larger patterns from small units of harmony. But do our brains perceive those larger patterns as we listen, without doing a conscious, in-depth analysis?

To test this idea, the scientists had volunteers listen to excerpts from classical choral music by Johann Sebastian Bach. The volunteers listened to both the original version and a subtly modified version. In the original version, the music began and ended on the same chord; what happened in between was Bach’s elaboration of a coherent musical idea. But in the modified version, the researchers shifted the opening harmony slightly, while leaving the ending unchanged. The result was a piece that, superficially, sounded the same as the original, but it had lost its larger-scale musical coherence.

The volunteers (which included musicians and non-musicians) listened to these musical excerpts in random order, and the researchers recorded their response to the music in two ways: by measuring the electrical activity of the volunteers’ brains and by having the volunteers complete a questionnaire. Remarkably, the electrical measurements showed that the brains of both the musicians and non-musicians reliably perceived the differences between the two musical samples. In the questionnaires, some of the musicians were able to pinpoint exactly what had been changed, while most of the other volunteers noted that the modified excerpt felt less conclusive.

The scientists argued that their results show that “both music and language make use of more general resources for the processing of hierarchically organized information than previously believed.” Perhaps humans find music so universally compelling because it speaks to our natural cognitive strengths. And perhaps because the works of many 20th century classical composers violate our intuitive expectations, we have a difficult time drawing emotional meaning from this music without being steeped in the theory behind it. These composers believed that traditional Western harmonies were as much an arbitrary cultural construct as the alternative harmonic systems they were developing. But it’s likely that J.S. Bach, and millennia of musicians around the world before him, were tuned in to the core ability of our minds to perceive larger harmonic patterns—and without those patterns, we’re likely to just hear noise.

Michael White
Michael White is a systems biologist at the Department of Genetics and the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he studies how DNA encodes information for gene regulation. He co-founded the online science pub The Finch and Pea. Follow him on Twitter @genologos.

More From Michael White

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


Follow us


Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.