I know that if I play an out of tune guitar, that it sounds unpleasant. I know that if I play an arrangement on the piano (even one I am making up as I go) and accidentally play a note that does not belong in the key I am playing in, it sounds "bad" to me (and anyone within earshot)!

In Western Music Theory there are 12 notes. In some non Western cultures, each of these 12 notes may be divided in two - thus making 24 notes. If I heard a composition in which some of these quarter tones of non-western music were used, it would sound "out of tune" and probably make me want to put my fingers in my ears.

We know that certain notes put together in a certain pattern according to certain accepted theories, sounds to us like "music" - whereas, similar patterns (played on the same instrument) that fail to conform to those tuning and arrangement "standards" - sound harsh and unpleasant? Have there been any studies, or research, or anecdotal observations that seek to determine or explain, why this is so?

Is because from the time we are born (or perhaps even in the womb) we hear music arranged based on commonly accepted "standards" - so we get used to hearing it that way and that becomes the way it's "supposed to sound"? Or is there some biological predisposition in the human species to prefer certain patterns and sound frequencies arranged in certain ways?

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    I'm not an expert, but the general view I've picked up is that musical tastes are a little of both. Musical sounds have certain physical properties that other sounds don't that gives rise to some notes sounding empirically, quantifiably consonant or dissonant. In addition, different listeners from different cultures and backgrounds have acquired tastes for different musical constructs.
    – Kevin
    Jan 28, 2015 at 6:02
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    I really don't have the hit points available to take this question on, but let me just say that there are arbitrary conventions for creating musical sounds which we have been conditioned to expect, and there are also standards for creating musical sound which appear to be related to or derived from the order of the physical world and which human beings seem to universally prefer.
    – Grey
    Jan 28, 2015 at 6:13
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    The alternative is specious. A huge part of what we transmit to our children culturally is also biologically constrained (but not determined). There are many different scales that peoples consider "natural", but only a tiny fraction of those that would be mathematically possible actually occur. Most of them would be hard-pressed to be accepted by any culture. Jan 28, 2015 at 8:15
  • @Kilianfoth You have some interesting conjecture here; it would be interesting to see some examples. Jan 28, 2015 at 12:59
  • The simplest chords use the lower values in the overtone series; I suspect that's part of the reason simple harmonies stick with those notes. Quarter-tones represent much higher harmonics, which may be part of the reason they're hard for people to accept. But then again, look at linguistics: Inuit and some older African languages use a variety of click sounds that are indistinguishable to someone who didn't learn the language as a child. (Heck, as an American, I can't even tell 'dessus' from 'dessous' :-( ) Jan 28, 2015 at 14:07

1 Answer 1


Basically music is very similar to languages. There is a reasoning behind its structure but you can't understand (or get into) it without getting familiar with the grammar, expressions, phrasing, cultural references, mimics...etc. You can know them natively by growing in a culture or get to know them later.

In its infrastructure, there are sure some physical reasons in western music and human recognition but there are also some reasons behind non-western music. So it is not really a distinctive character. You can take a look at the overtones and their relationship with western harmony for a starting point. You will see that western music quantizes the overtone structure down to well tempered system and construct a vertical harmony structure, while some other cultures use the overtone structure as it is and construct music horizontally in time monophonically.

A side note about this is when western little children singing songs are analyzed, their use of scale is very close to the overtone scale. That means later, overtone scale is culturally overwritten by the quantized well tempered scale, which is a very good example of perception of music also depends on culture.

And like any other taste, personal differences are also very effective. Some people are more open, capable, or gifted... to alien things and some may not.

  • So based on your side note - I would conclude that the overtone scale is more "natural" whereas the "quantized well tempered scale" is more "cultural". I am not familiar with the overtone scale. Can you tell me where to learn more about this? Thanks. Jan 29, 2015 at 3:32

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