Music is beautiful, not ugly. According to a recent investigation at least, the adjective “beautiful” is the most used word to describe the aesthetic value of a piece of music, whereas “ugly” is rarely used at all. Nevertheless, everybody has it’s own musical preferences, is attracted to a certain kind of music and develops a personal taste. Thus everybody makes judgements. But what are these judgements based on? Is it all about beauty?
According to the neuroscientists and musicologists Nieminen et al. no objective measurement of beauty for the music exists, comparable for instance with the combination of colours and forms within the visual arts. We ourselves rather bring along a wide range of personal features that interact with the properties of the music, while we listen to it.
And we start to collect those before we are born. Already certain natural rhythmic patterns, which one experiences in the foetal period, can partly modify the future music taste. In a next step we are shaped during early childhood, while listening to our parents’ music collection. Familiarity has a positive effect on the enjoyment of music: what we know better, we prefer. But not only the memory of the music itself plays a role, but also the association of that music with – for example – a special event is important with respect to the liking or rejection. These associations mostly stay throughout a whole lifetime. Interestingly, in our brain, the cingulated cortex, which is responsible for empathy and for resolving conflicts, is active during judgement – the better we understand the musician’s intention, the more we like what he expresses.
It is about beauty, yes. But also about ourselves.
Nieminen S, Istók E, Brattico E, Tervaniemi M, & Huotilainen M (2011). The development of aesthetic responses to music and their underlying neural and psychological mechanisms. Cortex; a journal devoted to the study of the nervous system and behavior, 47 (9), 1138-46 PMID: 21665202