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The Science Behind Musical Taste

Studies find harmonic arrangements, rhythm patterns draw listeners in or drive them away

FRIDAY, May 21 (HealthDay News) -- Searching for some objective ways to understand musical taste, two new studies reveal that harmonic arrangements and rhythm patterns are two critical features that either draw listeners in or drive them away.

The first study, from the University of Minnesota and reported in the May 20 issue of Current Biology, found that the musical chords that are the most appealing to American ears are ones where the sequence of notes played are harmonically related to one another.

A second study, out of Brazil and published in the May 20 issue of the New Journal of Physics, revealed that people are attracted to certain rhythm patterns, and tend to go for songs that display similar rhythmic durations and ordering, regardless of whether those songs come from what would normally be thought of as differing musical genres.

The American study examined the preferences of more than 250 college students, while manipulating the harmonics and frequency patterns of the music they heard.

They found that people, at least in the case of Western musical tastes, tend to like songs with frequencies harmonized by sharing fundamentally similar roots.

"It suggests that Westerners learn to like the sound of harmonic frequencies because of their importance in Western music," study author Josh McDermott, who was at the University of Minnesota when the research was conducted, said in a news release from the journal's publisher. He stressed, however, that people from different regions might lean towards preferring other kinds of harmonic qualities, noting that "intervals and chords that are dissonant by Western standards are fairly common in some cultures."

"Diversity is the rule, not the exception," he added.

The Brazilian researchers analyzed 100 songs for each of four musical genres -- rock, blues, bossa nova and reggae -- in search of the most representative rhythm sequences.

Once such sequences were identified, the authors found they were then able to classify all the songs by these distinctive rhythm patterns.

Such a rhythmic classification method, they suggested, gets more directly to the heart of how people truly hear songs -- and why they choose the ones they like -- than does the traditional technique of slotting songs into one category or another (for example, jazz or rock).

The Brazilian team now hopes to look at other musical features, such as the intensity of musical beats, to see how else they might improve the way songs are classified in terms of listener preferences.

More information

For more on the science of musical taste, visit the The Dana Foundation.

-- Alan Mozes

SOURCES: Current Biology and New Journal of Physics, news release, May 20, 2010

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