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Duke University

Music as Biology: What We Like to Hear and Why

Duke University via Coursera


The course will explore the tone combinations that humans consider consonant or dissonant, the scales we use, and the emotions music elicits, all of which provide a rich set of data for exploring music and auditory aesthetics in a biological framework. Analyses of speech and musical databases are consistent with the idea that the chromatic scale (the set of tones used by humans to create music), consonance and dissonance, worldwide preferences for a few dozen scales from the billions that are possible, and the emotions elicited by music in different cultures all stem from the relative similarity of musical tonalities and the characteristics of voiced (tonal) speech. Like the phenomenology of visual perception, these aspects of auditory perception appear to have arisen from the need to contend with sensory stimuli that are inherently unable to specify their physical sources, leading to the evolution of a common strategy to deal with this fundamental challenge.


  • Course Introduction
    • Introduction to Music as Biology
  • Sound Signals, Sound Stimuli, and the Human Auditory System
    • An overview of the organization of the human auditory system, and how sound signals are transformed into sound stimuli.
  • The Perception of Sound Stimuli
    • An introduction to the sound qualities we perceive, and how and why these qualities differ from the information in sound signals.
  • Vocalization and Vocal Tones
    • A discussion of the nature of vocal sound signals, their biological importance and their role in understanding music.
  • Defining Music and Exploring Why We Like It
    • The tonal phenomena that need to be explained in any theory of music, and different approaches that have been take to provide answers.
  • Musical Scales
    • Why a small number of basic scales are used in music worldwide, and how a biological framework explains this and related puzzles.
  • Music, Emotion, and Cultural Differences
    • How emotion is conveyed by vocal similarity in music across cultures, and how the speech of a culture and its music are related. A summing up of the major points in the course follows.
  • Additional Resources
    • Additional demonstrations and commentaries by Ruby Froom on some of the musical issues considered in the course, as well as a glossary of terms and bibliography for references.

Taught by

Dale Purves



4.0 rating, based on 4 Class Central reviews

4.3 rating at Coursera based on 655 ratings

Start your review of Music as Biology: What We Like to Hear and Why

  • Kristin Williams Henry

    Kristin Williams Henry completed this course, spending 4 hours a week on it and found the course difficulty to be hard.

    Good course, and a very interesting overview of the human auditory system, the significance of the harmonic series, and a biological perspective on what attracts us to music and how we have developed a musical language. The instructor is very narrative...
  • Kristina Šekrst completed this course and found the course difficulty to be medium.

    This course will give you a biological background of music - why do we like certain tones and scales, and how does it relate to our social and genetic background. The underlying idea is that music we like is similar to human vocalization patterns, and...
  • Anastasia Blita

    Anastasia Blita completed this course.

  • Erik Schwind

    Erik Schwind completed this course.

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