Why do we like Music? – Part 2 – Answer: Fractals?

In part 1 of this essay, we looked briefly at the history of music and at possible explanations for its universal appeal.  Today, I want to discuss three recent pieces of  research which further support and expand on what we’ve already discussed.

Music evolves

As stated previously, it was specifically my inability to appreciate Chinese Opera, that finally convinced me of the cultural origins of music’s appeal, but some interesting research from Imperial College London recently came to light, which seems to further support this position.

Using a computer to create, “breed” and mutate random sequences of sounds, using the subjective ratings of human volunteers as selection criteria, the researchers showed how after a few thousand generations, the sequences had evolved towards something significantly more “musical” than those with which they’d started.

For me this resonated well with my previous thoughts that we are attracted to certain music, not because of any innate capability of these sound patterns to affect our brains, but because we have learned to associate certain music with certain occasions, emotions and feelings.

Music is good for our brains

Although the effects measured may not have been as dramatic as those created by DreamZone in my novel Connected, a recent study by a team of researchers from Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, found that

 …childhood music instruction has strong linguistic benefits and improves performance on everyday listening tasks.

Also that:

There is a body of research that suggests music training not only improves hearing, it bolsters a suite of brain functions. Musically trained kids do better in school, with stronger reading skills, increased math abilities, and higher general intelligence scores. Music even seems to improve social development, as people believe music helps them be better team players and have higher self-esteem.

Certainly, this chimes well with the observations of Oliver Sacks, which I mentioned in the first part of this essay, that music can be wonderfully therapeutic in the treatment of many disorders of the brain. In fact, only last week I watched a TV documentary about how a group of young people suffering from Tourette Syndrome are able to keep their tics 100% at bay while performing music.

Music itself is fractal

This last finding, when I first read about it one morning a few months ago, made my day. It also made me wonder whether I was too hasty in attributing music’s appeal solely to learned cultural influences.

Without giving too much away, my novel, Connected, centres on a mind-altering video sequence called DreamZone, combining a specially crafted audio passage (informed by the research I mentioned in part 1 by Daniel Levitin) with a sequence of evolving fractal images discovered by some university students reading mathematics and computing.

So when it was reported in Wired that the same Daniel Levitin had since discovered fractal underpinnings for not only the pitch of music but also the rhythm, it seemed especially serendipitous that I had chosen fractal imagery to accompany the DreamZone audio.

By analysing over 2000 different samples of classical music, Levitin and his team discovered a 1/f relationship (the property of fractals giving rise to their self-similarity at all scales) between the length of musical notes and their rate of occurrence in the piece. Furthermore, he discovered that each classical composer had a unique signature as measured in these ratios, and that this has a direct bearing on how predictable the music is – which brings us full circle back to the expectation / violation hypothesis discussed in part 1.

So what do you think? Are the powerful effects of music simply a result of learned cultural association or some innate property through which it acts directly on our brains?

I’m now leaning towards a combination of the two, but could this mean that we might one day create a real DreamZone video?

Let me know your thoughts.

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Author, musician, science nut, & IT marketing pro. My first novel, CONNECTED, is a mystery thriller with a touch of speculative science & philosophy.

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  1. For me, music is logical, precise. When I composed songs a few years ago, I wrote the words first according to rhythm and thyme. Once I’d established the tone of the song, the notes could only go one way. I didn’t learn this–I let my own imagination draw me along. I’m not one for doing things with groups. Sometimes I wish the reverse was true. However, I guess my early musical likes would have influenced my brain to create further songs a similar way.

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