How Music Doesn't REALLY Work

I ran across the How Music REALLY Works! site on the web today. I'm not one for knocking other people's work, and I mostly use this blog for practical lessons, but there's a myth repeated here that needs to be busted.

The section in question is the one on so-called "brain-averse" scales. People who know me will already know where this is going but for those of you who don't: there is no natural or physiological reason why we modern Westerners like the major scale. OK? Good. I'm so glad we had this chat.

The reason given here is an old chestnut and has to do with the overtone series and the idea that small ratios of frequencies give universally pleasing sounds. This idea was cooked up by a Greek mystic called Pythagoras who was around in the sixth century BC and ran a cult whose members believed, among other things, the universe was made of numbers. As a consqeuence he thought that Greek music should be reformed by means of a tuning system based on simple ratios of frequencies -- that is, ratios involving small numbers that Pythagoreans claimed had magical properties.

The first thing to say is that at least since the seventeenth century most Western music has been out of tune with the overtone series because of the system of equal temperament. This is true of your guitar, too. If your brain was really hard-wired to think the overtone series was correct then almost all the music you hear would sound subtly out of tune to you. This video demonstrates the differences between just intonation (which uses the overtone series) and equal temperament:

You may prefer the sound of just intonation or you may not -- I think it's a matter of personal taste, like whether you prefer lamb or chicken. If you disagree then you're going to have to explain how things went so wrong around half a millennium ago when we phased out just intonation from mainstream music-making. You're also going to have to give up on the key system and, therefore, tonal harmony as we know it. This is unfortunate because most arguments like this are really seeking to claim a universal "rightness" for the tonal system.

You also have to account for the fact that, on this account, most of the world's musics are "brain-averse". No traditional music that I'm aware of uses the pure overtone series -- it just simply isn't true that "[h]umans everywhere prefer music made with tones in relationships of simple frequency ratios," unless you stretch your definitions to breaking-point. It seems as if us modern Westerners have got it "right" and the rest of the world is "wrong". Or perhaps we're universalising what are actually just our own prejudices?

I think that's exactly what's happening when we read these kinds of claims that the kind of music that's familiar to me is somehow natural and "correct", while other people's music is "wrong". Read them you can, all over the place, not only in popular music books but in the work of some musicologists, although the latter don't go in for it so much in recent decades.

In this particular case the issue is probably just that the author has got stuck on the idea that there are "natural" ways to build scales and that anything else is "chaotic" or "random". incidentally, the fact that the author uses these terms interchangeably suggests that they're not being used in a precise way; both words do have precise meanings, and they don't mean the same thing at all.

Yet even if we grant that the major scale is natural -- which I don't -- unnatural things aren't necessarily random. A guitar, a skyscraper or a silicon chip are certainly unnatural, but they're useful and, in certain cases, we can consider them to be beautiful. In fact all art, including music, is by most definitions artificial, not natural. This doesn't make it random.

The moral: don't be too hasty to judge music that sounds strange to you. The world of music is much larger, odder and more wonderful than you might have imagined. This is one of the reasons why I encourage my students to listen to a wide range of different kinds of music, and to do their best to understand even stuff that initially seems alienating. It broadens the mind and innoculates you automatically against stuff like this.

I leave you with the Ornette Coleman Quartet performing "Lonely Woman". Brain-averse? You decide: