Big Ears Make Music Good

It’s a well-known fact that many people have no taste in music; in fact, anyone who disagrees with you would fall into this category. We tend to have well-defined comfort zones with regard to what we listen to, whether that be the soporific major-key dronings of afternoon radio or the mangled circuit-bending madness of a honey-coated vintage synth carcass being manipulated by an industrial spin-dryer. It’s probably a safe bet that neither of these (not entirely imaginary) individuals would enjoy listening to the other’s record collection; but is there any way of explaining the vast differences in musical taste that make the music world so very fascinating?
(from Music Technology)

The Neuroscience of Music

Daniel Levitin used to be a music producer, with such artists as The Grateful Dead and Stevie Wonder on his extensive list of clients. However, in 1990 he decided to leave this profession and instead delve into the neural substrates of the brain. He is now working full-time as a neuroscientist, and through his research he hopes to reveal more about how our brains respond to music.

In fact, music can stimulate the brain in much the same ways that other pleasurable sensations do – responses to music can be neurologically similar to those provoked by chocolate or sex. In his 2006 book, ” This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession”, he mentioned that the only pleasant sound that an accordion could make would be if it were burning in a bonfire.

Sounds and Substance

However, he goes on to point out that we all experience sound in different ways; and even physical characteristics such as the size of one’s ears can have a significant impact on how ‘pleasant’ we perceive a sound is. The shape and specific structure of the head also has a profound impact on sound absorption, so it may well be the case that for a given sound source, different people actually perceive it in very different ways.

It may be the case that someone with particularly large earlobes (or a large head) may absorb more low-frequency vibrations from a particular source, which could serve to mellow out or temper the harshness of higher frequencies in that sound. This may lead them to perceive the sound as being more pleasant than someone whose perception of the sound had more emphasis on the mid- to high-frequency range. However, such physiological traits fall some way short of explaining overall taste in music; the neurology of musical taste itself is something that researchers are working on, but it may be quite a while before we have any concrete answers on that one.

The innovation Canada site has an interview with Levitin, which you can read here


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