Bookbag: MUSIC 288S/NEUROSCI 288S

Music as Biology
December 16, 2016

THE CATALYST: Neurobiology professor—and amateur guitarist— Dale Purves has long been fascinated by music. While his research focuses on vision and visual perception, he also has delved into audition—first to confirm his visual findings in another sensory system, and then to explore the basis for the importance of music. “Music has a lot to say about audition because of the universal interest we human beings have in music and the relative absence of this interest in other animals. Most animals couldn’t care less about music,” says Purves.

THE GIST: Purves’ goal is to explain music without relying on music theory. For example, music theory might say that a dissonant tone sounds bad because it’s a minor second; Purves is trying to explain the reason why a minor second sounds bad in terms of its biological consequences—what is happening in the processing of such tones that creates a perception of dissonance. Purves’ overarching theme is that from the perspective of biology music isn’t mystical at all. Much of its appeal can be explained in terms of “vocal similarity.” For example, while millions of scales are possible over an octave, only a few dozen are used throughout the world. The reason, Purves explains, is that the scales we like are the ones most similar to human speech. The same holds true for the universality of consonance. “The closer notes in a melody are to human vocalization—the octave, the fourth, the fifth—the more we like them,” he says.

ASSIGNMENT LIST: As Purves says, the course caters to a certain crowd: “people who like music and want to understand it from a scientific point of view but [are] put off and mystified by music theory.” The course materials are, appropriately, more science-y than musical. Readings primarily come from Purves’ new book, to be released by Harvard University Press in early 2017, Music and Biology: The Tones We Like and Why. Students also engage with the professor’s video lectures before discussing them in class, as well as presenting original literature to their peers.

THE TWIST: The course, currently in its second year and aimed at undergraduates, may shift in coming years to a more advanced, graduate-level setting. However, all students (and alumni!) have the opportunity to participate (for free) in Purves’ online Coursera class with a similar name, “Music and Biology: What We Like to Hear and Why.” The online setting was the original testing area for the NEUROSCI 288S seminar, and now its discussion forums are overseen by students in Purves’ undergraduate course.

  • Lucas Hubbard '14 is the Clay Felker Fellow staff writer at Duke Magazine.