Music is a part of our daily lives. Whether you’re taking a train, walking around a city, or laying on a beach, musical sounds surround us. These sounds could come from your headphones, a street performer, or perhaps wind and crashing waves are musical to you. We all perceive musical sounds differently, what may be a distracting/white noise to someone may be a moment of relaxation for another. For example, the whistling of birds could be a relaxing moment (or music to your ears), while it may be distracting or annoying to someone else.
So, why is it that we perceive certain sounds as music and others not? And, does music sound like music no matter where we’re from?
First and foremost, it is important to understand how our brain interprets sound. Our brain detects different qualities from the vibrations produced by sounds such as musical instruments, car alarms and language which is picked up by our ears as sound waves. Once directed to the ear canal by the outer ear, the sound waves meet the eardrum and pass through the middle ear. Sound waves are amplified before entering the inner ear and then, the cochlea. Once inside, the sound waves are converted into electrical impulses, which are transmitted and interpreted as sound by our brain.
Music consists of many ingredients including pitch, timing and tone. If a sound or collection of sounds are harmonious they are creating harmony. When they are sequentially pleasing, the sounds are creating a melody. The combination of these aspects contribute to an overall pleasing sound of music. Language is known to have the same ingredients because when we speak we produce sounds like notes (frequencies.)
Some sounds are more musical to us than others because of how our brain perceives these stimuli. These frequencies match those of a piano’s keys, so it makes sense that when we hear someone singing, we feel music. Something like nails scratching on a chalkboard may also have some of the same ingredients as music, however, it usually comes across as a noise (and an unpleasant one at that!) because it isn’t harmonious or melodious. The melody of language, the sounds our voices make, where our voices rise and fall. . .these follow the melody and harmony of music.
In a 2009 study, it was considered whether or not emotions in music were universal. This study can also help us to understand that no matter the language spoken or cultural differences present, sound can still be interpreted as music and even evoke emotion. Happiness, sadness and fear were looked at as three basic emotions detected by a group of Western listeners and of Mafa listeners (habitants of Cameroon mountainside never exposed to Western music.) The study had a positive result, solidifying the claim that music can be understood around the world and convey the same emotions without spoken word.
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