Creating simplicity: How music fools the ear

Jan 20, 2011

What makes music beautiful? The best compositions transcend culture and time – but what is the commonality which underscores their appeal? New research published in BioMed Central's open access journal BMC Research Notes suggests that the brain simplifies complex patterns, much in the same way that 'lossless' music compression formats reduce audio files, by removing redundant data and identifying patterns.

There is a long held theory that the subconscious mind can recognise patterns within complex data and that we are hardwired to find simple patterns pleasurable.

Dr Nicholas Hudson used 'lossless' music compression programs to mimic the brain's ability to condense audio information. He compared the amount of compressibility of random noise to a wide range of music including classical, techno, rock, and pop, and found that, while random noise could only be compressed to 86% of its original file size, and techno, rock, and pop to about 60%, the apparently complex Beethoven's 3rd Symphony compressed to 40%.

Dr Nicholas Hudson says "Enduring musical masterpieces, despite apparent complexity, possess high compressibility" and that it is this compressibility that we respond to.

So whether you are a die hard classicist or a pop diva it seems that we chose the music we prefer, not by simply listening to it, but by calculating its compressibility. For a composer – if you want immortality write which sounds complex but that, in terms of its data, is reducible to simple patterns.

Explore further: Researchers help Boston Marathon organizers plan for 2014 race

More information: Musical beauty and information compression: complex to the ear but simple to the mind? Nicholas J Hudson, BMC Research Notes (in press).

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not rated yet Jan 20, 2011
If compressibility was the only factor, wouldn't musical tastes be far more uniform? (Not that they're expressly saying that it is the only factor, i know.) What I would like to know is how these lossless compression programs compress. I'm no programmer. If a track has a drum beat, does the algorithm say the equivalent of "make a sound that goes like this every 0.441 seconds" or something like that? No that would be a midi file right? Not an mp3.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 20, 2011
As composer of classical music, the statement "it is this compressibility that we respond to..." must be the most idiotic over-simplification that I can imagine coming across. If instead, it had been postulated that the compressibility is symptomatic of the accumulative integration of more fundamental fractal elements, this would have been more accurate and sensible. Music is a language that very effectively models an underlying reality, reflects orbital and gravitational systems, paradigm drift and shift, social systems, harmonic integration of interdependent entities, matter-energy interactions, retardative stasis and the dynamic expresssion of the pursuit of evolutionary quality in interactive synergy. Bach understood this, a grasp of universal thematics that may well show "mathematical complexity" but if that's the only symptom we use to characterise musical excellence, we effectively miss out its greatest meaning and effects...
1 / 5 (1) Jan 20, 2011
The ability for music to transcend generations depends on whether or not you can whistle it.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 20, 2011
The ability for music to transcend generations depends on whether or not you can whistle it.
Try to whistle Thomas Tallis' "Spem in alium" for forty voices.

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