beauty is learned, and npr acts like fox news…


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…when it comes to reporting on music.

NPR has been running a lot of stories about music perception, but they always seem to spin it in such a dumb way.

Researchers in Australia undertook a very imaginative study that provides real insight into how we find music beautiful, even music that we’re told we shouldn’t like. It turns out that our theories of consonance and dissonance that we’ve been working with since Helmholtz are simply not supported by science. The researchers found that when listeners encountered unfamiliar chords – chords in which they couldn’t identify the pitches – they couldn’t even process the chord. It was like a word in a foreign language that they didn’t understand.

The first experiment was setup to identify consonance and dissonance as a function of the relationships of pitch frequencies, based on the work of Helmholtz. But no correlation was found. Instead, they found that the ability of the subject to identify the pitches in the chord influenced their categorization of consonance/dissonance. The second experiment set out to test that idea more rigorously, by training non-musicians to identify the notes in some chords and not others. These subjects were then asked to listen and categorize chords as consonant or dissonant. Subjects consistently rated the chords that were taught to them as more consonant than chords that were unfamiliar to them, even if the familiar chords were considered more dissonant by our current theories.

The findings themselves, and their implications, should have a huge impact in the area of music perception, and in the broader realm of how we understand 20th/21st-century concert music and the musics of other cultures. Our current theories of consonance and dissonance date to the mid-1800s, based on theoretical work dating back to Pythagoras and the ancient Greeks. And these theories that we have assumed to be true for centuries are contradicted by this study. In the dry terms of the researchers, they found support for “a cognitive mechanism of dissonance.”

Which brings me back to the popular press – in this case, The Atlantic and NPR.

The Atlantic does a fine job of capturing the importance of the science and the overall aesthetic implications for music. Their headline, “Study: Hearing Music as Beautiful is a Learned Trait” captures those aesthetic implications right at the outset, and “above the fold” as they used to say in newspaper terms. And they include a quote from a co-author that points to this study overturning centuries of science about dissonance being related to the construction of the human ear.

NPR, in its Deceptive Cadence music blog, takes a more transformational approach to the story, focusing a great deal on hate. Take the title, “Can You Learn to Like Music You Hate?” Or the first sentence, “You hear some music you hate.” The actual study never deals with “the visceral response” that seems to preoccupy the NPR writer. Eventually, the NPR writer gets to the key finding, that listeners don’t even process unfamiliar chords – “not that they didn’t like it” – but the tone is set by the opening focus on hate. But the takeaway line, “the more you hear the more you love” swings and misses wildly. And the graphic caption, “harmony, it’s in the ear of the beholder” is exactly opposite of what the researchers found (it’s in the brain). Of course this is a play on a popular phrase, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s still not the point of the study.

While I do appreciate NPR and Deceptive Cadence, their writing about music perception studies and how these relate to musical taste seems to try for that populist, Wolf-Blitzer-trying-to-be-Fox-News sort of reporting. This article is full of distortion that reflects more personal quirks of the author than the study being reported on (or really, the article about the study being reported on). It just seems like NPR should do better with art and culture.

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