Good vibrations

What is quality music?

People from diverse cultures agree that certain pairs of notes are harmonious (consonant) or disharmonious (dissonant). The discord comes from interfering vibrations of the ear’s basilar membrane, which lead to conflicting patterns of activity in the auditory nerve.

But most musical preferences are learned. They change over history – sounds dissonant to medieval audiences might go unnoticed today. And they vary between cultures. Melodies that inspire sadness in one country may leave people from another unmoved.

What accounts for individual taste in music? Some research has found a link between music taste and particular personality traits (see Like a rolling stone). We will also naturally be influenced by the music we experience as we grow up – both the prevailing musical culture and the specific music our families listen to. Even factors such as socioeconomic status may be significant (jazz tends to be more popular among the well-off).

Our tastes will tend to change over time. With experience, we may begin to enjoy more complex musical pieces. But we also lose our initial range of hearing.

Changes to the brain can radically affect musical tastes. Classical music lovers with dementia, for example, have been known suddenly to acquire a taste for pop music.

So what about musical quality? A century ago the question would not have been thought worth asking: Western classical music was seen as innately superior. Colonial occupations imposed attitudes and culture as well as armies. Even today, classical music retains an association with social and cultural elites.

Even so, what is seen as ‘quality’ shifts over time; composers come in and out of fashion. Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ sparked a riot when first performed in 1913 yet is now widely recognised as a classic. Moreover, there is a greater willingness to accept musical plurality – that no one musical form is ‘better’ than another.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Neuroscience, Psychology, History
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
11–14, 14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development