Five Notes For All

Are We Wired for Music?

by Sam McDougle

I was recently leafing through Jared Diamond’s bestseller “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and was reminded of the prevailing idea in biological anthropology that humans first colonized the Americas  around 15,000 years ago (give or take a couple thousand years).  I had just posted on this site about Leonard Bernstein’s Harvard lectures and his thoughts concerning the universality of the five-note “pentatonic scale,” so I began to think about Native American music and its pentatonic nature.

The centrality of the flute in Native American music then reminded me of a study in Nature published last year, that reported the oldest ever archeological evidence of music:  A 35,000 year old flute carved from the bone of a vulture.  While the exact tones produced by the flute remain unknown, it had a curious number of holes:  5.  I also recently stumbled on a research article in the journal Infant Behavior and Development on the language of mothers and their infants – the authors showed that infants and their mothers coordinate their pitches harmonically while they speak, and the go-to pitches were often within a pentatonic scale.  Throw in the pentatonic’s ubiquity in Eurasian and African traditional music and the picture is pretty clear – these 5 notes are genetic.

The universality of the pentatonic scale in world music is not a new idea.  However, the idea that it could be biological is more controversial.


The acoustic signatures of human speech have been attributed to the efficacy of a harmonic series, which is a tone that resonates with a fundamental frequency, kind of like a note. This series, which is a natural occurrence of certain tones, is also present in human speech.

Kamraan Gill and Dale Purves argue that humans are drawn to musical scales because scales represent a harmonic series similar to human speech:

“The component intervals of the most widely used scales throughout history and across cultures are those with the greatest overall spectral similarity to a harmonic series. These findings suggest that humans prefer tone combinations that reflect the spectral characteristics of conspecific vocalizations (Gill and Purves, 2010).”

In other words, we are drawn to scales because they acoustically resemble speech, and we are drawn to speech for obvious reasons.  But what do notes arranged in scales (music) communicate that speech doesn’t?

Another line of new research suggests that this question is misguided.  Instead of separating music from speech and finding obvious functional differences, we have to look deeper at the similarities.  In a new article in the psychology journal Emotion, Megan Curtis of Tufts University argues that the defining pitch intervals of both sad, “minor,” and happy, “major,” music can also be heard in normal speech.

Curtis recorded professional actresses speaking neutral two-syllable phrases (i.e. “Let’s Go”) with various emotional signatures, like “sadness” and “pleasantness.” The actresses typically uttered a minor 3rd interval when expressing sadness and the major 3rd interval when expressing happiness. Furthermore, listeners overwhelmingly heard “sadness” in the minor third and “pleasantness” in the major third – it appears that the pitch of spoken words communicates emotion in the same way music does.

Intriguingly,  these intervals play an important role in differentiating the major and minor pentatonic scales.


Noam Chomsky put forth the idea of a “universal grammar” in language – a cross-cultural, biologically ordained set of syntactical rules that turn words into sentences.  I suspect that a “universal musical grammar” will eventually be added to his model.  Subjects and verbs are universals in human language, perhaps the pentatonic scale is one too.

About the author

Sam McDougle

SAM MCDOUGLE is a Ph.D. candidate in Psychology and Neuroscience at Princeton University. His writing has appeared in Vice and The Atlantic.

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  • Sound must have preceeded speech. The harmony of the scale might refer to lots of living things. Please refer to the amazing instalation of the ‘Hive’ winning entry in the Milan expo show.
    This is now on show in Kew Gardens London.
    This instalation highlights the plight of bees in an extremely powerful way for all ro appreciate.

    The point I am trying to make is. That they found that 5 notes in the scale of C provided the bees with their sound harmony.

    I am going to tell hom about your article.

  • The Hive installation at Kew till october next year. Designed by Wolfgang Buttress. Wonderful example of the music of bees. Powerful message to us all to,protect the bees from damage, currently from neonicotineoids ! Listen to the music of nature.

  • Have a look at an ebook from the iBooks Store called The Improvise Approach by Carrie Lennard. It utilises the specific use of the pentatonic scale and the key of C and comes with specially composed music that enables anyone to improvise freely using the iPad and ThumbJam music-making app. Very easy to set up and use and ideal for people with very restricted movement and complex needs.

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