John Shirley
4 min readOct 31, 2019



“Perceptions of Musical Octaves Are Learned, Not Wired in the Brain”

“Singing experiments with residents of the Bolivian rainforest demonstrate how biology and experience shape the way we hear music.”

So we’re told in the article linked at the bottom of this piece. And I’m sure they’re quite right. But that’s not the whole story.

Of course, we always had suspicions about the relativity of the musical scale and musical values, in a way. Remember The Addam’s Family? Morticia, at least on the show, played a form of dissonant — to our western ears — Japanese music. It was based on real Japanese music but it was supposed to be another example of the innate bizarrity and “That’s Just Wrongness” of the Addam’s Family. (I love all formats of The Addam’s Family by the way. I have always had a terrible crush on Morticia, especially in her movie form. Female beauty is a matter of perception too). Musical sounds emitted by youth often repel the aged. A good many foreign musical styles at first can sound grotesque to the close-minded listener — but we learn to appreciate them, to hear their beauty. American music, at first, sounded quite ugly to many people in Asia. It grew on them and they adopted some of it and combined it with their own forms. This demonstrates not only the relativity of musical values but also the wonderful plasticity of our aesthetics. So, it’s not terribly surprising to hear that the octave is not wired in to our gray matter.

Still, Pythagoras saw — or rather heard — things from another angle. He heard mathematics in music. Harmonies and harmonics could be parsed mathematically — and math is our way of perceiving logic and the orderliness of some aspects of nature. Even chaos can be mathematically measured, it seems to me, since any object will break down into chaotic parts according to specific laws — laws of physics which follow mathematical rules. Standard harmonics does seem to have some cosmic resonance, if not always a neurological one.

The Quanta article tells us, “It appeared that the same notes in different octaves, like high C and middle C, didn’t sound alike to the Tsimané as they did to people in the U.S.” They theorize these rainforest folk actually perceive sounds differently, in ways they were taught to perceive them. This suggests that we also, here in the USA, in our turn perceive sounds — octaves, harmonics — as we’re taught. It’s a learned perception, sure. I can remember hearing “Do, a deer, a female deer, ray, a pocketful of sun…” in The Sound of Music as a child. I was taught do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti…and back to do, in elementary school and the corresponding sounds were played for me. I was told this was a basic pattern used in organizing music. I accepted that. And it is used that way — for some people. On the whole, I perceived it that way. This perception was broken down, or at least much modified, later, when I came to deeply appreciate alternative forms of music, like the stochastics of Xenakis and the tortured and strangely gorgeous sounds of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica; like the Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray; like the barely controlled music of Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum; like the wildest free jazz. Some of these forms incorporated walls of raw sound, chaos; others traded in the superimposition onto background rhythms of seeming dissonance which nevertheless had an alien, cutting beauty. So it’s possible to unlearn conventional harmonics, conventional musical values! Or rather, to put the standard harmonics and structure aside, so to try something else; to take in a different sort of nourishment at the feast. What is this yellow thing, a lemon? I have never tasted one before. I bite into it. Holy crap, that’s intense! What joy! And soon after I appreciate oranges more, even as I begin to like Sweet and Sour Chinese foods.

It all reminds me of Wittgenstein’s idea that our way of perceiving the world is filtered through the language we’ve been taught.

So — it appears that our most basic American and European rigid musical structures are not wired into our brains from the start. However — there is such a thing as recognizing and relating to felicity in all its forms. And we are attuned, in some wise, to felicity. To harmony. It’s the sonic version of things going well at home. Of being loved. Of the right word falling into place. Naturally we respond to it music. The rainforest folk presumably do the same — but they represent it differently.

Dissonance — why does it tend to set our teeth on edge? Notice that danger is associated in nature — not always, but as a sort of trend — with dissonance. Predators generally do not make conventionally harmonious sounds — hawks shriek; the wolf snarls and makes other blood curling sounds as it prowls; bears on the attack make a glutinous angry roaring; mosquitoes make an unpleasant humming whine. (Some owls, who are predators, hoot pleasantly but there are owls that shriek). The rattlesnake’s warning is not a pretty sound. It can be well used in a composition — I’ve heard it done — but in itself, it’s an unnerving sound. And think of the sound of an erupting volcano. A tree exploding as lightning strikes. A building will make many alarming sounds when it’s collapsing. Many birds do make conventionally “prettier” sounds. We associate them with the friendly side of nature. Jays make a raucous sound, and will do you little harm — but they are rapscallions.

Now, chaos can be used in thought-out, planned compositions, as well as in improvisation — Zappa’s Uncle Meat, say, or his Weasels Ripped My Flesh. Or consider a Jackson Pollack painting. But one of Zappa’s or even John Cage’s more chaotic sounding compositions are planned, not random, and Jackson actually composed as he painted, coming up with uproarious chaotic but still patterned paintings…



John Shirley

Author of numerous novels, including Demons, City Come A-Walkin’, Stormland and the A Song Called Youth Cyberpunk trilogy. Winner of the Bram Stoker Award.