The musicological study of the psychological effect of musical experiences  — “Psychoacoustics” —  struck me immediately due to its incredible history. While it appeared in 1863 in one of the earliest treatises on modern psychology,[1] Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik by German physician Hermann von Helmholtz, the link between music and brain has been on the close watch of human civilization since the time of classic Greece.[2]  From the human tendency to deal with all sensory information in patterns, to the suspenseful use of tension and release in music as a way of communicating narrative, to the ability of “great” music to transform us emotionally, the study of psychoacoustics has a multitude of areas to offer us as musicians who are curious about the potential effects that our music can have on listeners.

When considering the strong psychological effect of music on the brain, I have often found it interesting how, as humans, we generally have a clear perception of what music “is”; in other words, we all instinctively decide for ourselves whether or not what we hear is music or simply noise. In 1952, this seemingly simple definition was blown open to interpretation through the premiere of John Cage’s 4’33, a piece of music that includes no typically “musical” sounds at all, rather, only the sound or “noise” of the environment of the listener. In this legendary work, Cage was able to completely subvert our expectations as audience members and turn the experience of listening to music inward on itself, towards the listener and away from the performer. Now, our experience of sound as music or music as sound depends only on our psychological projection of aesthetics on a given situation. In other words, the sounds we hear only become music when we set our mind to perceive them in a certain “musical” way. Although our focus is now on the music of the 21st century, subverting the audience’s expectation in music is certainly an age old technique, so much so that one could say this technique is intrinsically tied to the act of musical composition. Even further, one could argue that the ability or lack thereof to allure the audience with expectation and surprise, tension and release, is where we can finally draw some line between what is noise and what is music.

The strong link between psychology and our human perception of sound. offers a clear pathway into the study of why these subverted expectations affect us so deeply. This connection becomes even more apparent when we consider the fact that the act of listening to or playing music uses more parts of the brain than almost any other activity.[3] When exploring the link between psychology, music and the science of sound perception, it is interesting look to the work of musicologists who “would like to bridge the gap between compositional and perceptual theory by making the results of psychoacoustic research more accessible to composers.”[4] Musicologists Richard Parncutt and Hans Strasburger in their article “Applying Psychoacoustics in Composition: “Harmonic” Progressions of “Nonharmonic” Sonorities,” present of compositional method which attempts to construct harmonic progressions of non-harmonic sonorites. Again, we are dealing with pattern recognition as a link to the human ability to perceive any sound as music, similar to the way in which human language evolved from the ability to perceive the difference in a variety of harmonically complex tones or vowels.[5]

Chris Beroes-Haigis

[1] Eric F. Clarke, “Musicology: Psychology and Hearing,” Oxford Music Online: Grove Music Online (2001, updated and revised, 31 January 2014), (accessed January 28, 2019).

[2] Clarke.

[3] Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (New York: Dutton, 2006), 31.

[4] Richard Parncutt and Hans Strasburger, “Applying Psychoacoustics in Composition: “Harmonic” Progressions of “Nonharmonic” Sonorities,” Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Summer 1994): 88-129,, (accessed: January 29th, 2019).

[5] Richard Parncutt and Hans Strasburger.

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