Explaining “Beautiful” Music

Sophie Cohen


At every wedding I have attended, there has only been one thing in common: the music. When my uncle (in 2011), cousin (in 2015), and family friend (in 2017) got married, each bride marched down the aisle to the same piece: Pachelbel’s Canon in D. At the time, I never thought about this commonality. However, due to my recent interest in Baroque music, I have started to contemplate this practice and have asked myself “why is this piece always played?” Well, besides it being a well-known nuptial tradition, the inner workings of Pachelbel’s Canon are simply extraordinary. The piece itself is made up of only a straightforward melody with rudimentary accompaniment, yet it still remains satisfying to the ears.

But what really makes this basic piece so beautiful? The answer is consonance and patterns. Consonance is when musical notes are in harmony with one another. This can create a sweet or pleasant-sounding tone. Patterns are more straightforward. When a piece of music has repetition of a theme, even in the form of a variation, it is a pattern. Almost all of the music that is considered to be the most beautiful and exquisite in the world features these two ideas working together.

Take the second movement of Beethoven’s eighth piano sonata: Pathétique. The main eight-bar theme repeats itself twice at the beginning and four times at the end. You hear this consonant, soothing melody six times throughout the entire movement. Yes, the first and third movements are famous in their own right, but the popularity of the lovely second movement is directly attributed to this memorable theme.

To validate this further, I conducted an experiment to determine whether or not consonance and patterns are what people truly believe make a piece beautiful. In my experiment, 20 people filled out a questionnaire about their musical background, listened to five different pieces of classical music, and filled out an additional questionnaire in which they ranked the pieces from least pleasant to most pleasant. Furthermore, while they listened to the music, I took notes on the subjects’ facial expressions and body language. The first piece they listened to was a two-minute section of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It was a very dissonant part with orchestral unpredictability, typical of the Russian neoclassical composer. The second piece, a short section of Beethoven’s fifth violin sonata “Spring”, was an incredibly consonant work with frequent repetition throughout the first movement. The third piece was supposed to be situated in the middle-ground. It was a short excerpt from Berlioz’s March to the Scaffold from his Symphonie Fantastique. This piece features many patterns, but the melody is unpredictable and leaves people wondering what comes next. The fourth piece was a short clip of Bartok’s second piano concerto. Like the Rite of Spring, it is dissonant and lacks patterns. Finally, the fifth piece played was an excerpt from the third movement of Haydn’s trumpet concerto. The entire section was based around one consonant, melodious theme, making it very repetitive.

The data collected from the experiment are listed in figure 1.

As you can see, the results of the experiment were very close to what I hypothesized. Ninety percent of the subjects believed that the two most dissonant and unpredictable pieces, the Rite of Spring and the Piano Concerto, were the ugliest pieces of music. On the other hand, 80% of the subjects believed that the two most consonant and repetitive pieces, the Violin Sonata and the Trumpet Concerto, were the most beautiful. March to the Scaffold, the middle-ground, was all over the place, as some people found it to be the most pleasant; whereas, some thought it to be the least.

Facial expressions and body language during the experiment were also very telling. Almost every person that put down the Violin Sonata or the Trumpet Concerto as the most pleasant was physically moving to the music. Some swayed to the melody, and others tapped their fingers to the pulses. Even the people who ranked the Rite of Spring and the Piano Concerto near the top of the list were not reacting like that. Additionally, the most positive facial expressions that people displayed during the Rite of Spring and the Piano Concerto were contemplative at best. Most of the subjects laughed, furrowed their eyebrows, or pursed their lips at the pieces. Evidently, they were unimpressed.

Even though people have started to open themselves up to modern and unpredictable music, it is clear that music featuring consonance and patterns is still considered the most beautiful. We can even see this in the pop music that people are consistently listening to right now, as many of the tunes are repetitive and feature harmonious melodies. This situation could be caused by a comfort zone that western society has steadily developed over the past 400 years. Either way, different types of music all bring something to the table, and we should make more of an effort to embrace them.

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