From the maths behind music to animals proving they have rhythm, 2022 has seen some pretty groovy science about music. Let’s sound off on some of the best musical science published this year in Cosmos Magazine.
1. Music as medicine
With given the year (well, few years) we’ve all endured, it’s nice to know that music still has your back.
It’s no surprise that music can affect your mood. A boppy tune can get you moving and smiling. A slow, sombre melody may get the tears flowing. But research published in 2022 explored the ways in which music influences us much more deeply.
In fact, the study shows that music may be used medicinally to treat anxiety. And I don’t just mean putting on your favourite song to calm jangling nerves.
Scientists found that a machine learning algorithm could tailor a playlist designed to alter your mental state.
Alter away, I say.
2. Puttin’ on the rats
Slower or faster, pitched up or down or altering songs to evoke different moods has become quite popular online. But we still recognise our favourite tunes. Play the same song on a different instrument and you’ll probably still identify the track. Even really shoddy cover versions can’t cover over a melody we know well.
Turns out this ability to recognise altered music isn’t just a human trait.
Spanish scientists played the same melodies, changed in tempo, pitch and orchestration, to a group of rats. They found that the rats’ behaviour was unchanged when tempo and pitch were modified showing that they recognised the same melody. They were, however, confounded when the instrument on which it was played was different.
My only question is: why did we need to know this?
3. Music is the universal language – almost
One of the first things you learn in music theory is that major keys sound happy and minor keys sound sad. Apparently, different cultures may not agree.
Research published in 2022 showed that some remote communities in Papua New Guinea, who had little exposure to Western music, do not share the same emotional associations to major and minor keys.
The Papuans were just as likely to pick a melody played in either key as “happy”.
I’m not sure this explains why overly-preppy kids’ songs make me so sad, though.
4. Hearing loss is not rock ‘n’ roll
Huh? What’s that? I couldn’t hear you.
Like many other people of my generation, I grew up with earphones, headphones and loud music concerts. To cap it off, I was in a metal band for a while. I often find myself asking others to repeat what they’ve just said. I’m probably not alone – the WHO says about a billion young people are at risk of hearing loss because of unsafe listening habits.
This year, scientists published research highlighting the dangers of some of these practices, and how to safeguard your hearing.
Their advice is no big surprise. Sounds of over 80 decibels can be dangerous. And the amount of time it takes for damage to occur decreases exponentially as you increase the noise level.
At concerts, don’t stand right next to the speakers. And, if you do, take regular breaks by going to a quiet spot. And wear ear plugs. I promise you’ll still be able to hear your favourite artist.
5. Drop the bass (below the level of human hearing)
We all know music that’s bass heavy is good for dancing. But a 2022 study suggests dropping the bass even further – to below the level of human hearing – will get even more bodies moving across the dance floor.
The researchers found that people are 12 percent more likely to dance when music includes super-low frequency bass outside the audible range.
This could be related to how this infrasound interacts through vibrations with our inner ears, closely linked to our motor systems.
You just need the right speakers to play such low-frequency sounds and you’ve got yourself a killer DJ set.
6. All that jazz science swinging into view
Any jazz musician will tell you that swing is about the “feel”. That’s certainly true, but it may be something that science can understand.
This year, German researchers analysed hundreds of solos to find out the rhythmic secret behind swing in jazz music. They found that there are definite tendencies in the way jazz musicians play the uneven quavers (eighth notes to the American reader) that are so iconic in the genre.
It turns out most jazz soloists, regardless of subgenre, preferentially delayed the downbeats by a tiny amount to get that swingin’ feelin’.
7. Rock hyraxes serenading in time more likely to hit it off
Like some humans, rock hyrax males use courtship songs to attempt to attract a mate. Their success is often down to how well they can maintain rhythm according to research published this year.
It’s possible that musical skill is a signal to female rock hyraxes that the male is healthy and has good genetics.
The fuzzy vocalists also have songs which exhibit regional dialects, and they tend to get louder as their song progresses. Peak complexity comes toward the end of their serenade, so watch out for those epic finales, ladies.