composing · Uncategorized

Are music aesthetics learned or innate?

In the world of music psychology, you often hear discussion about our sense of aesthetics, our perception of musical beauty. People offer various theories as to why we find certain aspects of music attractive or not. Often, for instance, it’s postulated that appealing melodies duplicate the human manner of speaking. These melodies don’t just offer a long stream of 8th notes but rather they break apart in the same way we break apart our spoken conversations. There’s a prosody to music, according to this point of view.

One question that arises is whether the “rules” that define our human sense of musical aesthetics are innate or learned via culture. To put it another way, are we born with these aesthetics, or do we absorb them while growing up in our environment?

Obviously some of it come from culture or else music would sound pretty much the same all over the world. But, as I once saw Daniel Levitan comment, there do seem to be some universal “don’ts” that are observed by all cultures. Nobody associates screaming and cacophony with calm, for instance.

This might seem a rather academic discussion with no real bearing on actual music making. But it struck me the other day that it has relevance. If you think that our aesthetics are largely created by culture, you might be willing to experiment with wild ideas in music, even if they at first sound unappealing. You might reason that, with time people will acclimate to these crazy sounds. But if you think that there are some universals innate in the human listening experience, you would want to figure out what those universals are and follow them.

I suspect that a lot the early 20th century composers like Schoenberg and Webern fell into the former camp. They thought music taste was learned and therefore humans could learn to appreciate wild new sounds. But my suspicion is that they were wrong, and this is why their music never really caught on in a big way. (It wasn’t a complete failure and is still played to this day, but a lot of people consider it “eat your vegetables” music. It’s good for you in some way but not particularly appealing*.)

* The Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal notes in his book The Ape and the Sushi Master that even certain birds express dislike for the music of Schoenberg.

As with almost every human behavior, I think music taste is a combination of learned and innate components, but you can’t stray too far from what our innate preferences dictate.

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