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U study examines why we like some sounds and not others

Why one person’s sweet music is another person’s jarring noise has been a puzzle throughout the ages.

Now a study of University of Minnesota students gives some clues.

The Greeks believed that simple ratios in the string lengths of musical instruments were the key, maintaining that the precise mathematical relationships endowed certain chords with a special — even divine — quality, Science Daily said in reporting  the Minnesota study.

The Minnesota research team tested the preferences of some 250 U of M students, exposing them to various beating sounds as well harmonically related sounds. (Harmonic frequencies are all multiples of the same fundamental frequency. For example, notes at frequencies of 200, 300 and 400 hertz are all multiples of 100. Beating occurs when two sounds are close but not identical in frequency.)

The beating did not particularly impress the students, according to the findings reported in the journal Current BiologyWhat determined whether the music sounded good or bad to them depended mostly on harmonic frequency.

And that preference was strongest in students who had experience playing musical instruments, said the research team led by Josh McDermott, a former post-doctoral scholar in Minnesota who now is at New York University. Others on the team were Andriana Lehr and Andrew Oxenham of the U of M’s psychology department.

The findings suggest that exposure to music amplifies preferences for harmonic frequencies because of their musical importance, the researchers said.

Also, harmonic spectra are prominent features of natural sounds. And the research results indicate that they underlie “the perception of consonance,” the researchers said.

Another factor is that harmonic frequencies are important in Western classical and popular music.

And that may be the fundamental reason why students in Minnesota preferred them. It’s what they are used to hearing.

Whether or not you would find the same preferences in people in other parts of the world remains to be seen, McDermott said in a statement about the research.

“Intervals and chords that are dissonant by Western standards are fairly common in some cultures,” he said.

The opportunity to study the preferences across a global range may be lost though because Western music has become so popular in so many places around the world.

“When all the kids in Indonesia are listening to [American rapper] Eminem,” McDermott said, “it becomes hard to get a true sense.”

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