The chromatic scale -- the musical scale that follows the notes of the piano and of which the Western seven-tone do-re-mi scale is a subset -- may not be based on number ratios, as many physicists and mathematicians have proposed, but rather on human speech, according to a study published Wednesday in the Journal of Neuroscience.
"Many people back to Pythagoras have tried to explain musical sound and musical perception through a mathematical approach," said lead author and Duke University perception scientist David Schwartz. "The math is not what explains the perceptions. Both the numbers and the perception are explained by the patterns of our speech. It is a biological and psychological phenomenon."
By examining thousands of recorded utterances of more than 500 native English speakers representing the eight major dialect regions of the U.S., Schwartz and his colleagues discovered people place extra emphasis in their speech on tones that correspond to the notes of the scale.
While different cultures use different forms of the scale, almost all of these variations have similarities to the "universal" chromatic scale, the scientists said. And analysis of people speaking languages such as French, Mandarin Chinese and German, all revealed a similar pattern, with peaks corresponding to the notes of the scale.
Does this mean the scale and people's appreciation for certain tones evolved out of speech patterns or did these patterns evolve from the pleasantness associated with harmony in music?
"It's a chicken and egg thing," said co-author Dale Purves. "But the likelihood is that music probably followed speech."