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REPORT | Music (Not Math) Is Our Universal Language — Two New Studies Show

By Anya Wassenberg on March 12, 2024

Image of a classical piano concert (Jewelia/Pixabay/CC0C)
Image of a classical piano concert (Jewelia/Pixabay/CC0C)

Music is a universal language… it’s an often repeated axiom, but what does that mean? Two newly published scientific studies add proof to the common impression.

One dismantles one of the pillars of Western theory, while the results of the other show that no matter where we come from, we have an innate response to the emotions that music conveys.

Pythagoras Was Wrong

The concept of universal musical harmonies is flawed. That’s the conclusion of a recent study published by researchers from the University of Cambridge, Princeton and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics.

The study’s official title is Timbral effects on consonance disentangle psychoacoustic mechanisms and suggest perceptual origins for musical scales, authored by researchers at the University of Cambridge, was published in journal Nature Communications in February 2024.

Pythagoras & His Theorem About Music

Pythagoras is credited with discovering the basis for Western music theory. According to the legend, it was the sound of a blacksmith’s hammer that caught his attention, and led to the realization that there was a mathematical relationship between intervals in pitch.

Today, it’s more properly explained as the harmonic overtone series. It begins with this idea: if string A is X units long, pluck it an it will create pitch Y. If you shorten the string by half (X/2), the tone produced when plucked is exactly one octave higher. If the string is divided into a third (X/3), the tone produced goes up one octave plus a fifth.

That led to the assumption that these ratios were universal. Pythagoras himself applied them to the planets, and it led to the concepts of “just” intonation, or the scales as we use them today in Western music, consonance and dissonance based on thirds and fourths.

The new study, however, puts that into perspective.

It suggests that the methods of tuning an instrument, as well as its tone, play a role that goes beyond mathematical perfection — and the biggest takeaway is that we actually seem to prefer it when those ratios are at least slightly askew.

We prefer slight amounts of deviation. We like a little imperfection because this gives life to the sounds, and that is attractive to us,” said co-author, Dr. Peter Harrison, from Cambridge’s Faculty of Music and Director of its Center for Music and Science, as quoted in Phys.org.

When it comes to instruments outside the usual Western culture, the effects of the mathematical ratios between notes seems to disappear entirely.

Specifically, the study used the bonang, an instrument related to the Javanese gamelan. To their surprise, new patterns of consonance and dissonance emerged.

“The shape of some percussion instruments means that when you hit them, and they resonate, their frequency components don’t respect those traditional mathematical relationships. That’s when we find interesting things happening,” Dr. Harrison added.

Why is it important?

The study concludes by noting the benefits of exploring the possibilities of non-Western instrumentation, and its correspondingly different harmonics. Including non-Western instruments in more research would likely also reveal more surprises.

Universal Responses

When it comes to its effects on our emotions and bodies, a new study suggests that music truly is the universal language of humanity.

Researchers from North America, Europe, and China teamed up for a landmark cross-cultural study in the effects of music, recently published in Neuroscience News.

The study looked at the responses of test subjects to the music arising from different traditions, using what are called body sensations maps or BSMs. What they found was quite simple: the same kinds of emotional and physical responses were produced across diverse cultures.

  • The emotional qualities in music produce physical responses and sensations, in patterns that were similar across the diverse groups;
  • The acoustic and structural features of the music were linked to the emotions and bodily sensations produced;
  • There were universal patterns in the responses they observed;
  • They did not observe any significant differences across divergent cultures.

A joyful piece of music will always be interpreted as a joyful piece of music, in other words, no matter where it is heard.

Why it’s important

The study breaks apart the notions that music appreciation is strictly related to culture, or that its appreciation is entirely subjective.

It’s empirical proof that music is an integral part of our humanity, and the implications extend to music therapy as well as its potential use as a unifying social element.

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