Study Challenges Pythagorean Theory: Imperfections Bring Life to Sounds

Study Challenges Pythagorean Theory: Imperfections Bring Life to Sounds

Challenging the theory of ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, a study suggests that imperfection in sound adds life to it. The research contradicts the long-held belief that ‘consonance’ or a pleasing combination of notes is a result of a specific relationship between simple numbers, such as 3 and 4, thus making a chord sound beautiful. The study shows that in regular listening scenarios, people do not prefer chords to be perfectly in these mathematical proportions. Instead, slight deviations or ‘inharmonicities’ are preferred as they add life to the sounds.

The research emphasizes that pitch and tuning of musical instruments can affect our perception of harmony. This contradicts centuries of theory on the subject. Researchers from the University of Cambridge, Princeton University, and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics were involved in the study, which was published in Nature Communications.

Instruments unfamiliar to Western musicians, audience, and academics such as bells, gongs, types of xylophones and tuned percussion instruments were examined. In particular, the study focused on the bonang, a traditional Indonesian orchestral instrument made up of small gongs. The researchers noted that the special numbers of Pythagoras are lost when using instruments like the bonang, leading to entirely new patterns of consonance and dissonance.

More than 4,000 individuals from the United States and South Korea participated in 23 behavioral experiments conducted through an online laboratory created by the researchers. Participants were played chords and were asked to rate each on a scale of pleasantness or to adjust specific notes in a chord for it to sound more pleasant. A total of over 235 thousand human trials were conducted.

The researchers were surprised to find a significant preference for a slight imperfection or ‘inharmonicity’. They also found that the bonang’s consonances matched the musical scale used in Indonesian culture, which cannot be played on a Western piano.