The Science of Music

Every year towards the end of July, Sheffield hosts the music festival Tramlines. As the line goes in one of Madonna’s song Music “music makes the people come together”, and they certainly do when Tramlines hits! Everybody is out. Whether it is out at a gig or a club or your own home, music worldwide has the ability to bring us together and brings up all kinds of emotions. This makes the study of the science of music all the more intriguing.

Ancient Origins

The archaeological record shows that modern humans were playing music 40,000 years ago and most archaeologists can agree that instruments were probably being made much earlier than that.

Flute made from griffon vulture bone dated 40,000 years ago from Hohle Fels Cave, Germany. From Archaeology: The Earliest Musical Tradition by D. S Adler


So why did we evolve the ability to make and enjoy music?

Well this is open to debate. Some believe that it plays in role in social cohesion by bringing us together so that it increases our survival rate. Others think that musical ability was a sign of reproductive fitness enabling sexual selection, and another theory posits that it evolved from parents cooing and talking to their babies with intonation. While different studies have provided evidence for some of these different angles, what scientists do agree on is that musicality evolved first as an innate ability in everyone and language came after that.

To figure out when musicality arose, researchers have looked at other species that use tone and song in their communications; birds. Indeed a lot of the genes that respond to music inside us are also found in songbirds (Kanduri et al 2015). Rhythm however is something that other birds have the ability to understand. Meet Snowball, a cockatoo who in 2008 wowed the world with his dancing and rhythm keeping to the Backstreet Boy’s tune Everybody (YouTube video) who once discovered was used in a study by Aniruddh D. Patel, author of Music, Language and the Brain. It has also been noted that primates use their own synchronised sound system as a way of communicating so it is possible that this paved the way for a basic form of singing (Cross, 2001).

The Equation in the Music

There is a little mystery hidden within Bach’s (1685-1750) The Well-Tempered Clavier and it is all down to some maths and physics. A sound wave is a vibration, which in air is called a longitudinal wave and that is picked up by the ear. One wave is one cycle and the speed of which (at a standard temperature or pressure) determines the pitch. When one wave oscillates at one second, this is one hertz (Hz). The longer the wavelength, the lower the pitch which means that fewer waves are oscillating per second and the hertz will be lower as well. So a middle C (where musicians on a piano start at) has 261 Hz while at an octave higher the C with a higher pitch has 523 Hz. Humans have a hearing range between 20- 20,000 Hz.

BBC GCSC Soundwaves
From BBC Bitesize


The octave is the common unit of musical notes; 8 notes A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and then A again (but of a higher pitch). The frequency by which these notes vibrate will thus increase (see Note Frequencies). One of Pythagoras’ (c. 570 – c. 495 BC) discoveries was a ratio describing how well two notes played together sounded which was based on dividing the octave into intervals of eight.

In theory, for any note that comes after the first, as long as the ratio is applied (and it can be applied to hertz), then it will sound pleasing to us. Compare examples 8 and 9 on the page Explaining the Equal Temperament. But a problem arises when we realise that the Pythagorean ratios are not exact. This leads to a calculated note that actually does not sound right. To get around this problem, a new ratio is applied where the octave is instead divisible into 12. This is known as equal temperament and is just one way of dealing with Pythagoras’ problem: making sure that the intervals between each of the notes are equal. This was exactly what Bach did not do when he divided his octave into 12 and then wrote The Well-Tempered Clavier, even when he used Pythagoras’ ratio. You can hear the difference in examples 16 and 18 on the above page. Using equal temperament enables musicians to change key; to play the same tune but using a different note, which is why you might hear the question: “So what key are we playing in?”

“If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.”- Nikolas Tesla (1856-1943)

Pythagoras was certainly a busy man and he envisaged in his Music of the Spheres that the planets had their own tone or note associated with them created by their movement in space, where the sound they each created was dependent on their respective speed, size and distance from the earth. So Saturn had the lowest note and the moon had the highest. He described this sound that they made as “a manifestation of divine order and motion.” Bearing this in mind, it is particularly odd that when NASA took their Voyager 1 into interstellar space in August 2012, its plasma wave instrument picked up on vibrational waves of electrons in ionised gas that the sun gave off in an eruption. Now there is no sound in space, air is after all the medium by which we hear sounds. But when these recordings were played back down on earth it just so happens that we can hear it. As it turns out space is given off all kinds of sounds and we can analyse these sounds to understand more about the universe.

The Brain on Music

Numerous studies suggest that music training can improve a variety of cognitive functions; memory, multi-tasking, co-ordination, attention and brain processing, which is particularly the case for children (Scientific American How Music Heals the Brain) to the point where it has been suggested that music is an integral part to a child’s curriculum. Musical training increases cortical thickness which aids in anxiety, depression, attention problems and aggression (Interlude). Musicians’ brains are structured very differently to non-musicians: music training leads to changes in the grey and white matter of the brain and an increase of brain volume. Studies of how music benefits the brain has blossomed into a field of its own and even listening to music can help heal neurological impairments which include those with stroke, dementia, autism and Parkinson’s disease. The study by Kanduri et al (2015) focused for the very first time on how music affects a person at a genetic level as many other studies have focused upon the release of hormones, such as when the reward hormone dopamine is released when listening and playing music. It turns out that genes activated by music include those that are able to re-shape the brain confirming the studies conducted on brain re-structuring. Interestingly, a study by the same group may suggest that there are genes linked to musical ability; genes involved in ear-development and cognition.

I used to play a few instruments myself as a child. I got up to grade 7 in piano, grade 5 in recorder and I played second violin in my school orchestra. I like to think that I can still reap the benefits that it has left on my brain despite abandoning music for science. My best friend Elizabeth Livsey (who I thank profusely for information for this piece) teaches children music always tells me how much music benefits both children and adults. She got into music herself through the combination of music and movement. She writes “Music is exploration of the human condition designed to communicate an emotion or mood. . . . It is so creative and complex it is impossible to cover everything. . . It is just fascinating, a bit like looking up to the stars and trying to understand everything up there. It’s just not possible.”


Radio Series: The Science of Music
Victoria Williamson 2014 You Are the Music: How Music Reveals What it Means to be Human, Icon Books Ltd


Danae Dodge

I received my PhD in Scientific Archaeology from the University of Sheffield in 2011 which specialised in ancient DNA and anthropology. For my profile, see my websites: I started getting involved in Science Brainwaves as a volunteer in 2010. I have volunteered at presentations, events (such as the British Science Festival in 2011) and even participated in the Science is Vital protest march in October 2010. My first blog for Science Brainwaves was "Ancient Humans: Who were they? And who got it on?" which was the written version of a talk I gave for the Natural History Society at the University of Sheffield on 5 December 2011. I also have a public engagement page dedicated to ancient DNA, which I encourage both the public and specialists to join: