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Music is auditory cheesecake?

  1. Aug 17, 2014 #1
    I have come across some articles saying that the reason we like music is that its auditory cheesecake. And i think someone called steven pinker came up with it. Can someone please shed some light into the matter, what does it mean? Simple explanation please.
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  3. Aug 17, 2014 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    It's a metaphor - if you don;t have the correct associations, then it won't make sense to you.

    It does come from Steven Pinker.
    This article has a discussion that should help.

    In a nutshell: it means that music is pleasurable in a complicated and hard-to-describe way.
    It is something that appears to be an evolutionary accident, a side-effect, and has no "real" biological purpose.
  4. Aug 17, 2014 #3


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    Music is a persistent evolutionary trait in humans. The logical explanation is it has some obscure survival value. Even animals seem to respond positively to certain musical forms - typically classical.
  5. Aug 17, 2014 #4

    Simon Bridge

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    ... like cheesecake.

    iirc the suspicion is that musical taste is part or result of some things which have an advantage.
    Remembering that "sugar tastes sweet because we like it" ... there are a bunch of such positive responces triggered by cheesecake, and music.

    We can also look at it as like humour and showey skills - a kind of secondary sexual characteristic, and sometime debugging routine for self-aware machines.
  6. Aug 19, 2014 #5
    It's a funny way of saying music is wonderful and can gently touch your senses and emotions through your ears. Cheesecake is used as a food for the soul because who doesn't like cheesecake, right? :) Basically it's kind of a metaphor :)
  7. Aug 19, 2014 #6
    According to the article linked to by Simon Bridge, Pinker sees a whole range of human activities as invented by humans simply in order to stimulate our pleasure receptors, for the sake of the pleasure. The pleasure receptors all evolved for a good purpose because the pleasure was attached to something beneficial to us, like eating sweet fruit and high fat meats, but humans have become adept at finding ways to stimulate the pleasure receptors with no regard for the greater or lesser benefit of the stimulating agent. Pinker counts art, literature, music, drugs and pornography, all as manifestations of this kind of invention, and cheesecake is cited as a typical example. The whole reason for being of cheesecake is to taste good. It was designed without regard to it's health effects.

    Pinker asserts music was designed according to the same plan: it's whole reason for existence is to please the auditory faculties. It is like cheesecake for the ears. He asserts we could live perfectly well without music in our lives.

    This is one man's opinion, mind you, not any sort of scientific fact. The article is by a man who disagrees with Pinker and puts forth several arguments against Pinker's view. Pinker's field, Evolutionary Psychology, is among the softest of the soft sciences, and everything that comes out of it is subject to debate.
  8. Sep 9, 2014 #7
    I've wondered why it is that we instinctively know which sequence of notes sounds nice/"musical", and which sounds like ****. Maybe it's because we've somehow been programmed to seek out certain pitch sequences in the distant past that would indicate where food was or something... but when I listen to, say, a present-day bird tweeting away (ie. singing, not making inane 140-character internet posts), it just sounds tuneless. I have no idea why we like rhythmic beats either.
  9. Sep 10, 2014 #8
    I think it's not instinct related causes. Years ago, I preferred pops while a neighbor of mine preferred only rap or hip hop. Yet, I fell in love with rock the next year then and the guy favored pop genre.
    The motor area of our brain controls rhythms of the processed sounds from the source. I suddenly hear a sad slow song from the radio while I'm in a bad mood, for example, will it definitely make me sadder ? I don't think it will. I think the limbic regions are also activated in response to different stimuli selectively.
  10. Sep 11, 2014 #9
    Don't the genres still follow common rules though? Ie. forget about anything so complex as rock vs. hip hop. Just take a simple piano tune. I think in a simple little sequence of notes everyone can identify when one just sounds 'off', right?
  11. Sep 11, 2014 #10
    We're hardwired to recognize the harmonics of a fundamental as 'proper' which makes major chords sound "right". Deviations from major chords start sounding more and more "wrong" the more they deviate. Minor chords are recognized as "wrong" but they're wrong in an interesting, logical way. There's been no end of experimentation with the introduction of more and more "wrong" elements into chords for more and more interesting effects. The "wrongness" has to have an audible logic that gives overall coherence, just like a caricature drawing of someone has to distort their face using a logical distortion algorithm in order that the subject remain recognizable beneath the distortion. Something like: if a person's nose looks 20% too large for his face, exaggerate it to x% too large. If his eyes are 20% too small, shrink them to x% too small. Artists and musicians do that completely by instinct, but there's always a logic to it.

    Music that sounds like junk is music where the listener can't sense any logic in the distortion algorithm. You don't speak "bird" so there's no apparent logic in their deviations from the major chords for you.
  12. Sep 13, 2014 #11
    Yes, that is true and a cultural point. It has nothing related to our gene at all. We hear the differences because we were "taught" or trained to see them so (i.e through a learning process). This can be observed in kids of 4-8 years old, for instance DO-RE-MI-FA-SOL or DO-MI-RE-SOL-FA they will not be able to distinguish which note sequence is better if they are not told or listening to again and again in a particular duration. Also, my 70 year old mother for example can't endure Western musicals (opera, metal or ballad rock), she only likes my country's love songs which makes us the young suffer badly.
  13. Sep 13, 2014 #12
    Neither is better. Why should you tell them one of those two choices is better?
  14. Sep 13, 2014 #13


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    History doesn't support that, even in Western music. Medieval western music was "logical", but it got along fine for several hundred years without bothering about chords at all in the modern sense of the word. The first theoretical writing on western music that talks about "chords" in a way that a modern reader would recognize was by Rameau, around 1700 - and he was way out of line with most of his contemporaries.

    That's nearer the truth IMO. "Logic" is what you have been listening to since birth, plus a selection of unsubstantiated myths and traditions (like "major keys sound happy and minor keys sound sad"). Many westerners will find this rather hard to follow, even with the helpful "hand signals" - but it's entirely logical within its own definition of logic.

  15. Sep 14, 2014 #14
    Looks like you're reading something into my post I wasn't saying. Saying we're hardwired to recognize the harmonics of a fundamental as "proper" doesn't mean we therefore must especially like music that's all major chords, if that's what you think I'm saying. The 'impropriety' or 'wrongness' of a note in a chord, and the logic with which that 'wrongness' carries through into the successive chords, is exactly what gives music its interest. It's just like literature or theater: something unbalanced, something wrong, has to happen to drive the story through the protagonist's attempt to recover balance. My point is that recognizing the major chord as "proper" is what tells us the deviations are interesting. Whether or not it's "sad," the shift from a major to minor chord is certainly a shift of the weight in the boat, so to speak.

    There is the issue with Western medieval music that it was church music, and any sounds that exceeded a certain dryness of emotion was automatically prohibited. No cheesecake for the monks.

    I'm not sure what point you meant me to take from the video. I think a person raised with Indian music would also be able to hear the 'rightness' of a western major chord when exposed to it. They would 'get' it, whether or not they wanted to listen to it all the time. I don't think they would be confused by anyone saying that C E G go well together.
  16. Sep 14, 2014 #15
    My example is meant to show that human beings do spend time learning to recognize and understand differences in nature; simply our brain is trained to learn things and how to connect them.
    I agree that we all share some common background of morality or social memes even though we inherit or live in different cultures. And this commonality fuses our tastes of nature or particularly of music. Any songs therefore possessing this sort of commonality will probably be favored by many worldwide. The auditory part of our brain only takes over tasks to process sounds. To recognize the coming sound as incorrect compared to others, it must map the heard sound to what it has been learned. Familiarity is measured but to dispatch ions for other add-ins (e.g emotions), the whole sequence of sounds need to to be mapped with the learned patterns.
  17. Sep 14, 2014 #16
    You presented the same 5 notes of the major scale twice. The second time the order is changed: the two last notes changed places. You assert that kids aren't able to tell which is "better," because they haven't learned which is "better" yet. The fact is, no adult fully steeped in Western music would say either is better. One sounds like part of a scale, the other like part of a melody. There's no context whatever whereby one might be deemed "better." In other words, you chose a really bad example to make your point.
  18. Sep 14, 2014 #17


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    So the peasants never made any music of their own on the other 6 days of the week? :biggrin:

    Actually the aristocrats made plenty of secular music as well, and unlike the peasants they wrote some of it down, so we have at least a vague idea what it sounded like.

    Even the monks let their hair down sometimes. The oldest copy of this was in the library of an abbey. The lyrics are mostly about the not-so-monastic subject of sex...
  19. Sep 14, 2014 #18


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    Mostly "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio...."

    I can't give a direct quote without ransacking my bookshelves, but somewhere I have the autobiography of the 20th century conductor Antal Doráti, who once took a western symphony orchestra on a tour of India (in the 1950s, IIRC) The audiences found most of what they heard totally incomprehensible.

    Personally I don't buy the "simple integer ratios" theory of why western music is what it is. Traditional musical instruments just don't fit the pattern, and they must have been designed and tuned "by ear", not by a mathematical theory.

    FWIW, Indian music divides an octave into 22 notes, not 12. Some modern composers are experimenting with 53 notes per octave, which isn't a new idea - the earliest known mention of it was a Chinese music theorist writing about 2000 years ago.
  20. Sep 14, 2014 #19


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  21. Sep 14, 2014 #20


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    The simple integer theory is somewhat aligned with physiology. I don't think the theory is a complete description, though. I think it would have been more strongly guided by what people heard in their environment (via Melodic expectation).

    But what simple integers do, because of the way our brain handles frequencies (storing an octave as the same note) and because of the beat frequencies in the physics. Integer ratios can help describe harmonic tension between two notes. 1:2, the octave is the least tense, 2:3. the fifth is more tense (but more stable beat-wise than any other interval besides the octave. The most tense notes are closer together. Of course, this doesn't predict who will like what combination of tension and resolution and progression, but one thing you could say about it is that it can be used to construct a standardized music system and that makes it a more stable meme.

    But I agree. Ultimately, neither melodic expectation or integer ratio theory say anything about emphasis, timbre, or rhythm and those account for a lot of cultural differences in music.

    I don't think that's true for a laymen. Even western laymen can only reliably detect octaves.

    I do think an experienced Indian musician would be able to see the harmonic tension (maybe they have their own word for it) increasing with higher integer ratios, and you could explain the musical logic behind using a fifth to reinforce the tonic, but the third would be more difficult. They would have neither in their system though (12 is nicely divisible by 4, 3, and... 22 is only divisible by 11 and 2) and they likely won't see the significance of it with respect to what they call music.
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