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Can You Learn To Like Music You Hate?

Harmony — it's in the ear of the beholder, Australian researchers say.
Harmony — it's in the ear of the beholder, Australian researchers say.

You hear some music you hate. That's fair. We all do on occasion. But can you learn to love — or at least not loathe — that music? Can you intentionally transform the visceral response you have to certain pieces and styles, or does that happen at some more incalculable, subtle level?

Researchers at Australia's University of Melbourne say that the more dissonance (which they describe as "perceived roughness, harshness, unpleasantness, or difficulty in listening to the sound") that we hear in music, the less we enjoy said music. Seems obvious enough, right?

Also falling into the "no kidding" category is the not-at-all new notion that the more we're exposed to a certain kind of music — either through intentional engagement or simple osmosis in whatever culture we're immersed in — the more we like that music.

But the researchers, who worked with participants ranging from highly trained music students at the university's conservatory to members of the general public, did come up with a couple of potentially interesting observations.

The first, reports The Atlantic, is that "when listeners hadn't previously encountered a certain chord, they found it nearly impossible to hear the individual notes that comprised it." Not that they didn't like it — they literally didn't even process it. Is that like hearing a word in language you don't understand? That it's just so much noise, so to speak?

The researchers' corollary finding is that the more participants understood about the music's structure — even down to individual chords — the more they enjoyed what they were hearing. To prove that point, the Australians took on a second experiment. They selected 19 participants without musical training and gave them some music theory instruction, particularly in identifying the pitches of certain chords. After 10 such experiences, those participants were not just better at pitch identification but also found those chords to be less dissonant, even when they were technically "dissonant" according to traditional music theory. That is: The more you hear, the more you'll love. Sounds good to us.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.