Coming in August, we'll have the international scales on our Professional Folders.
The notes used in Western music—or, more accurately, the relationships between the notes used in Western music—have a strange power. Bobby McFerrin demonstrated this dramatically by showing that an audience somehow knows what notes to sing when he jumps around the stage. He remarked that “what’s interesting to me about that is, regardless of where I am, anywhere, every audience gets that.”
He’s suggesting that something about the relationships between pitches is culturally universal. All people seem to experience them the same way, regardless of where they're from or whether they have musical training. The question of universals in music perception is important because it can help us determine how much of our perception is shaped by culture and how much by biology. A paper in this week’s Nature reports on the surprising finding that a form of musical perception long thought to be common across all humans might not be so universal after all.
In music, relationships between notes can be used in two different ways. If pitches are played in sequence, the relationships between them are melodic, like the difference between each successive note in "Mary had a Little Lamb." When notes are played simultaneously, like a single strum of all the strings on a guitar or a choir singing, the relationships are harmonic. Different musical traditions have different rules about which melodic and harmonic relationships are permissible.
In Western music, certain harmonic combinations sound pleasant, or “consonant,” while “dissonant” combinations are unpleasant. Composers sometimes use dissonance (for example, in jazz or the Jawstheme tune) to create emotional, textural, or other artistic effects. The perception of consonance as pleasant and dissonance as unpleasant seems to hold true regardless of whether someone has musical training.