A couple of weeks ago we tried out a piece I had not sung before. It was the sort of music that would make me turn off the radio immediately if I heard it broadcast. It left a sour taste in the mouth. Literally. It was not particularly discordant, so what was this about? I discussed it with the lady who runs the choir, who was puzzled by my strong reaction. Given that some people "see" sounds as colours, the possibility of crossover between the senses is not so strange. I have almost perfect pitch which means that I could be more than usually sensitive.
But what was it about this music that caused the effect?
The music was played through on the piano. The first issue was the tempo, which was erratic rather than regular. But then we got to a real ouch chord, over the threshold of pain. It was similar to the sound of a distressed baby. It was a particular combination of notes. When the offending note was changed, it was no longer painful.
This should not be surprising. There are nerve cells in the brain that fire sympathetically, so that one person can feel the pain of another. They are called empathy cells. If a child calls out when it is pain, an adult nearby will feel the pain. This has survival value, since the child is more likely to receive attention if it makes a call that positively demands attention.
Some discordant sounds have precisely this effect. When two notes of different frequencies are sounded simultaneously, "beat frequencies" are produced, consisting of the sum and the difference between the frequencies of those notes.
If the notes are close together, the beat frequencies will run into a discomfort zone. Engineers are aware of this, since it has to be taken into account in the design of passenger-carrying vehicles such as cars and railway carriages, which have natural modes of vibration. There are certain frequencies that give rise to unpleasant sensations, such as distress and nausea.
Penetrating sounds are of this nature. Some animals, particularly those living in a marine environment, have evolved so as to produce these sounds, which carry a long distance. The shriek of the seagull, for instance, is notorious.
It is not too far-fetched, therefore, to suggest that the dislike that some people have for church music written since the 1970s, is not a cultural phenomenon but is a reaction built into human biology. More research involving techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, would shed light on what is going on.
It looks as if the work of some recent composers should either be weeded out of the repertoire of church music or thoroughly revised before it is let loose to distress another generation of congregations.
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