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Not With The Band: Can We Learn To Love Music We Dislike?

Can we learn to love music we don’t like in the first place? That was the subject of a recent study done by researchers at the University of Melbourne.

The study first demonstrated that the amount of dissonance we hear in music – dissonance described as ‘perceived roughness, harshness, unpleasantness, or difficulty in listening to the sound’ – is directly linked to our appreciation of music. This sounds obvious but this leads to all kinds of fundamental questions.


The experiment showed that trained musicians, whose ears were more educated to new sounds, were also more sensitive to dissonance than members of the general public, and that people found in general unpleasant the type of music which uses chords they hadn’t previously encountered. In other words, we find pleasant what we are used to listen to, and unpleasant novelties we can’t comprehend at the first listening. On the other hand, musical training increases our exposure to different kinds of chords and harmonies, and so also increases our ability to identify them and enjoy them.


This would tend to further compare music with a language, the more we know about music, the more we can comprehend it, and appreciate it. Sarah Wilson, a co-author of the study said that ‘the ability to identify tones and thus enjoy harmonies was positively correlated with musical training. This showed us that even the ability to hear a musical pitch (or note) is learned.'


And this is an important part of the question, does this mean that anyone would be able to appreciate any kind of music with some training? Does this mean we can learn to appreciate music we don’t by just being more exposed to it? I have certainly learned to appreciate some genres of music which sounded foreign to me, but there is still some forms of jazz, for example, I can’t really enjoy, and I will need a big part of my life to find Stockhausen or Boulez’s stuff enjoyable! However, I am not exposed to it a lot,… I just wonder, would I be able to appreciate this kind of dissonance if I was listening to it nights and days?


And there is another aspect of the question, we are exposed to mainstream music a lot, however this doesn’t mean we necessary like it, and most trained musicians dislike it since this is too trite and full of platitudes for them! When your brain reaches a high level of musical education, how could you enjoy kindergarten-level ridiculously simple chords?


I have just noticed that albums I end up loving the most, are not the ones I have really liked at the first listening, the music I truly fall in love with is the one that grows on me, slowly, repeat after repeat, so in this case environment is a big factor but that's not the whole picture. Most of us end up liking music which we can make an emotional connection with, if nothing happens in the amygdala when listening to a piece of music, there is no hope we will ever like it, and the emotion we experience is probably linked to the environment and the culture we are living in.


That said, there are people who suffer from amusia, they are unable to appreciate any kind of music, as everything sounds like the sound of ‘thrown pots and pans on the floor’ as it was described by an Oliver Sacks’ patient in the book ‘Musicophilia’. These people’s brain are simply unable to process music, they are unable to hum or recognize familiar tunes, they show total tone deafness. These cases are extreme but who knows if our brains are all equal when it comes to appreciate music? Who knows if some of us are definitively and hopelessly deaf to some genres?

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