The Song of Psychology

No matter where you travel, near or far, there’s always something that accompanies your presence and allows for rumination: music. The amalgamation of psychology and music is the study of a person’s “thoughts and behavior from a scientific perspective” in an acoustical manner. The structure of a musical work has a diverse effect on human behavior and thoughts including: the distinction between patterns, similarities and dissimilarities, recognition, and the reactions that occur due to the simulation of said music. It is generally easy for a trained musician to understand the discrepancies between intervals, timbre, rhythm, and several other determining factors that affect and shape a musical work. However, while humans can discern these aspects, the combined study of music and psychology is what ultimately helped us comprehend our perceptions and behavior towards music.

Often, one of the most notable instances of human thought and music (in a scientific perspective) is the story of Pythagoras and the famous harmonies of plucked strings from the 6th century B.C. It is said that Pythagoras heard a blacksmith hammering on varying-sized anvils and observed that certain tones were produced that, when played together, were either consonant or dissonant. Of course, his observation was based on three intervals of a fourth, fifth, and octave which created generally consonant sounds and a dissonant one between the fourth and fifth-degree notes. Pythagoras took it upon himself to test said theory by applying it to fixed strings of varying lengths, based upon those anvil sizes, and recreated the intervals by numerical means. While some people believe that Pythagoras was not a real person, someone must have understood the relation between certain objects and how the tones they produced could be altered by size. In addition, the intervals and its tones were perceived to either have “pleasant” or “unpleasant” harmonies that did not base itself quite in math terms. Though these sounds were viewed with some relation of sensation, the matter was primarily based on re-creating sounds by using mathematical studies and theory rather than musical aesthetics.

Around the 4th century B.C., music began to surpass the mere thoughts tied to numbers and eventually fell into the process of human emotions. Aristoxenus found that there was a reason to believe in “musical intuition” or “musical synesis” rather than relying on mathematics to simply create pitches. In his document Harmonics, Aristoxenus describes music and its activity as “. . .something hidden deep down in the soul, and is not palpable or apparent to the ordinary man…”. These non-tangible perceptions and responses to music would relate to how a person would react to sounds based on its aural effects, despite Pythagoras’ idea of having calculated exact values for “perfect” tones. It is like our own practices in the current music world where we all have a different perception of what is considered “pleasant” or “unpleasant” due to the aural effects of a work. One might be thrown off to hear pieces that are more atonal, filled with chromaticism, or including microtones; tonality has pervaded and shaped our ideas and thoughts on what we consider acceptable, which allows us to express our emotions based on how it is performed and experienced. A person’s behavior and thoughts on music psychology opens a world that is understood through our interactions with music, so we must always reflect on those interactions in order to fully comprehend them.

–              Ashley Venegas


Anderson, Gene H. “Pythagoras and the Origin of Music Theory.” Indiana Theory Review 6, no. 3 (1983): 35-61. (accessed January 28, 2019).

Clarke, Eric F. “Musicology: Psychology, Hearing.” Grove Music Online. (Updated January 2014) (accessed January 28, 2019).

Deutsch, Diana. “Psychology of Music: Antiquity to the 19th Century.” Groves Music Online. (January 2001) (accessed January 28, 2019).

Levin, Flora R. “Synesis in Aristoxenian Theory.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 103 (1972): 211-34. (accessed January 28, 2019).

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