Is Music Subjective? – What Do You Hear?

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This is, I’m Robert Estrin asking, “What do you hear? – Is music subjective?” How much of our listening experience is cultural and how much is innately human? This is such a tough question to answer. I thought I’d elicit your help in this! I’ve got some original music that no one has ever heard before, which is a perfect vehicle for exploring this subject. But first, let’s talk a little bit about how much of the perception of music is just cultural. For example, we’re all used to hearing scary music, like a diminished seventh chord. It’s classic. It reminds us of old silent movies with a woman tied to the railroad tracks as a train is coming. We assume those emotions just from hearing the music. Is that just because we’ve been conditioned? Yes, that is certainly part of it. But there’s more to it than that!

In a way, tonality goes against nature.

What do I mean by that? Tonal music is based upon the naturally occurring overtone series that’s contained in all pitched sounds. That’s why a C-major chord sounds very natural to us, because indeed every single pitched tone you hear contains those basic pitches in it anyway. Whereas when you listen to harmonies that clash, it’s grading. One of the reasons for this is that some intervals are easy to digest because they are based upon simple math. An octave is a two to one relationship. It sounds very soothing, very easy to calculate. You’re essentially calculating intervals in your head. I bet you didn’t even realize that, but that’s exactly what you’re doing! When you’re hearing an interval, you’re counting vibrations per second. And when they double, that’s an octave. It’s easy to hear, it’s easy to calculate. Your mind can figure that one out. A fifth is a one to three relationship which sounds pure. But when you get to dissonances, they’re very distantly related mathematically, and they’re hard to hear as a result. So some of it really is biological, yet some of it is influenced by our cultural upbringing.

Is major or minor inherently happy or sad?

When you hear a major chord it seems cheerful compared to a minor chord. How much of that is innate in our biology and how much is cultural? A major 3rd is more closely related to the fundamental tone in the overtone series than a minor third. So the simpler relationship may have something to do with why a major 3rd in a major chord is more cheerful sounding to us. I’m going to share with you some original music and you’re going to get the opportunity to comment on as well as YouTube to get a discussion going to see how this music makes you feel. I hope you enjoy it!

Watch The Performance

This is music that no one has heard before. You get the chance to comment and get a conversation going! Talk to each other on the blog at as well as YouTube, and see what this music makes you feel. Together we can discover how much is innate and how much is cultural in how we hear music. We have people from all around the world hearing this music, people with different cultural biases. We want to hear from all of you. This will be a fun experiment for you to take part in! Thanks so much for joining me, Robert Estrin here at, Your Online Piano Resource.

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9 thoughts on “Is Music Subjective? – What Do You Hear?”

  1. Hi Robert,

    Thank you for your video on “Is Music Subjective.”

    I can appreciate the emotions you are creating by playing your never before heard piece.
    As you performed, I heard tranquility, peacefulness, love, aggressiveness, fury, haste and many other contrary emotions in your playing.

    After one listening, I did not hear any form or motif in this piece. I’ll have to listen to it again.

    You are an excellent pianist, Robert. I always appreciate your videos and learn so much from you. Thank you.

  2. Wow! I was all over the map on that one. I felt uplifted with something and then suddenly the music didn’t make any sense to me. I don’t know if it was me or the music really didn’t make sense. I am very much acculturated into frequencies that bring harmony, beauty, joy, that sort of thing. I can listen to the music of India and I feel perfectly at home. So here I was, listening to what you were playing and really enjoying it and getting a great uplifted spirit, and suddenly the music didn’t make sense! The roller coaster was a bit hard to handle. I suppose I will need to listen to it several times to see whether my first impression holds.

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    I love listening to Robert’s compositions and improvisations. He has a unique style, and is very inventive.

    He gave away some of the emotions with the pretty pictures. I love the pictures!

  4. Hi Robert – well, yes and no. No – I have never heard that particular assemblage of musical notes and phrases before. But – yes – I’ve heard just about all of the fragments of those musical notes before. That’s quite some assemblage you’ve put together – I think I’m hearing just about a little of everything! Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, Bartok, Schumann, Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Mussorgsky … not so much Bach or Mozart 🙂
    Loved it! – Thanks for that. I had several different feelings, but due to the many transitions in the styles, I was unable to follow a single feeling to a point of development before the mood changed.

    1. In listening to this again, I had an interesting impression! It’s feels somewhat like a musical version of “speed dating”. Just about the time you think you’re starting to get a feeling of who you’re talking to, it’s time to move on! It’s really very interesting, though, what a wide spectrum of emotions you’ve managed to convey in such a few measures – it’s quite an adventure, actually!

  5. To know whether music is nurture (conditioning) vs nature (in-born), one can ask a Chinese person tuned to Chinese melodies how she hears differently a minor vs a major chord.
    I would be surprised if it has not been done already.
    And conversely, I am personally not able to perceive emotions when I listen to Chinese music.
    Same thing with Arabic and other mon-western music.

  6. By the way, I love the beautiful nuances you brought out on the Bach French Suite #5 in your demo of the Seiler ED-208. I love when you can hear the conversations between the voices – you and the Seiler brought them out beautifully! I understand you’re in a showroom – the instrument needs a little larger room to let the sound breathe and meld. Given the right room and microphones this instrument would shine and sing brilliantly! 🙂

  7. I enjoyed the abstract quality and progression from calm to energy and back to calm. Reminded we of a herioc happening in the past in a European settlement. Picturesque music.. It would be cultural… For me but also refined and surprising. It is to create mood and thought provoking yet it is a different strange piece.
    Listening to it more will be good.. Attraction lies in the way it was performed. Not a bunch of noisy chords. Planned to make a whole.

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