Music, Explained

Credit: Explained @ Netflix

When humans listen to music, similar areas are activated in our brains as those during highly pleasurable experiences pertaining to

  • Food
  • Sex
  • Illicit drugs

Music exists in ALL cultures (urban, tribal, etc.)

How we hear

  1. First it’s just air vibration
  2. Sound moves our eardrums
  3. Little bones
  4. Fluid in cochlea
  5. Triggers hair cells to fire

Elements of Music

Rhythm = regular repetition
Reptilian brain (brain stem and cerebellum) help us create rhythmic patterns necessary to walk.

Tempo = beats per minute (BPM).

If a sound repeats fast enough, we hear it as pitch.

Playing multiple pitches at the same time unlocks another feature of music – harmony.

Octaves are pitches with double or half the frequency of another.

If you ask men and women to sing in unison, what typically happens is they actually sing an octave apart. That type of sense of equivalence is very widespread in human culture. Intervals like octaves are crucial.

Every culture divides the space between octaves into scales.

Most of us remember melody by the relative pitch (the space in between notes).

Timbre – quality of sound that distinguishes pitch if played on different instruments.

Most people perceive timbre like they perceive colour – it’s a thing you can name.

Perception in Animals

Other primates (species) don’t share our sense of beat, they just don’t seem to get the rhythm as we do. Feeling a beat requires strong connections between parts of the brain which are very rare in the animal world.

Birds can distinguish 2 different melodies but don’t understand the transposed melodies or moved up or down in pitch.


Some types of crabs and fireflies synchronize with each other, but only at one tempo.

Beat Perception and Vocal Learning

Some birds, like snowball, can feel a beat, but have no understanding of relative pitch.

Octave Equivalence

Rhesus monkeys can understand octave equivalence, but can’t feel a beat.

Combined with our capacity for language and memory, only humans put the entire puzzle together!

Music and Emotion

How musicians assemble these pieces triggers another aspect of music that’s, as far as we know, is uniquely human: Emotion.

Frère Jacques is in major scale, which in western music is associated with happy feelings.

Meaning accumulating based on the scale system of your culture is universal.


We’re only just starting to find out if our love for rhythm, repetition, and harmony evolved gradually through the other primates.

The search has connected researchers from an incredibly broad array of fields

They mostly consider their search for answers to be in its infancy.