A few weeks ago, a group of scientists from William Paterson University came together to ask an incredibly novel, yet incredibly obvious question: since skulls of different sizes have different resonant frequencies, does the size of your skull account for the music you like?
It’s one of those questions I wish I had thought of. There’s such a diversity in music tastes, and what one person likes can sometimes be completely unfathomable to another person. What if this is all because we have different sizes of heads? Could something this fundamental have that big of an effect on something as nuanced as musical taste?
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of resonant frequencies, there’s a long, quite complicated Wikipedia page on the subject that deals with oscillations and amplitude and q factor and all sorts of physics lingo, but as a musician, I’ll stick with the context I know: we’ve all seen church bells. The bigger bells ring with a lower pitch, whereas smaller bells ring with a higher pitch. Easy. But what’s more, if you play the pitch the bell produces at that bell, without touching it, the bell will produce that pitch on its own. That’s because that pitch is one of the bell’s resonant frequencies (if you want to be even more specific, it’s the bell’s fundamental frequency.) Bells, and skulls, while we’re at it, have a number of resonant frequencies, some of which vibrate more than others. Here’s something fun to do in a small, echo-prone room — just start humming from a low pitch and raise the pitch until you hear the whole room ring. There! You’ve found one of its resonant frequencies. It’s a cool party trick.
These scientists realized that the same thing that happens when you play sounds at church bells happens to your skull when you listen to music. I’ll let them explain:
The cochlea (principle auditory sensory organ) is embedded in the temporal bone of the skull. This extremely dense bone creates a resonant structure around the cochlea that amplifies some tones and attenuates others. To clarify this influence, the resonance of the skull is a large part of why your voice will sound so much deeper and richer while hearing yourself talk than will a recording of your voice. Your voice resonates in your skull and around your ear to create that increased richness. Consequently, the resonance of the skull can alter how a listener perceives a sound’s loudness, richness, and timbre (ISO 2631, 1978; Kruger, 1987; Shaw, 1974). Moreover, since the size, density, and even shape of a person’s skull is somewhat unique, that resonance will vary across individuals. Our current research was designed to explore whether this uniqueness in skull resonance might have a direct influence on the kinds of music a person prefers.
They played a number of original piano melodies, each in one of the 12 major keys, to listeners, who then rated how much they enjoyed each melody. Then, the researchers tested the resonance of the listener’s skull by “firmly pressing a microphone against the temporal bone while the listener tapped on his or her head.” Followed by a dose of aspirin, presumably.
And what did they find? Does our taste in music come from the size of our head? Do women actually tend toward different genres of music than men because their skulls tend to be smaller? Did my brother blast Rob Zombie on the family stereo when I was growing up only because his skull was, as I always suspected, thicker than most?
No. Not at all.
I have just taken you through the emotional roller coaster that was my reading of this Smithsonian article on the topic. A total letdown. Though they found that the size of the skull can’t predict musical preferences, they found a slight correlation with resonance and the musical keys that listeners disliked.
Of course, even if there was a sizable result showing that people with big heads dislike certain keys, people with small heads will dislike completely different keys, so there isn’t really a way to use this to one’s advantage. Oh well. It was an interesting question with a totally boring answer. That’s science for you. On to the next interesting question!
By the way, I just tapped my head. My skull’s fundamental frequency is E. I should have been a guitar player.
Featured image licensed by Creative Commons by flickr user Francesco Mosca.