The Echoes of the Mind – Aesthetics


“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” ~ Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci

The world is darkness without beauty. Aesthetic allure is not so much a quality as it is a celebratory source of warmth and light.

“The best and most beautiful things the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” ~ American author Helen Keller

The term aesthetics derives from the ancient Greek verb to perceive (aesthanesthai). (Aesthetics is also spelled esthetics, which is less aesthetic by seeming more clinical (flourishes being essential to beauty).) The nature of beauty has tickled philosophers throughout the ages.

“The good is the beautiful.” ~ Plato

Plato’s theory of forms put beauty on an absolute pedestal of abstraction, in seeing it as approximating the ideal forms of eternal perfection.

Many philosophers of the mind in the 18th–19th centuries abandoned Plato for aesthetic theories of association. Beauty was not intrinsic, but instead garnered by affiliation with other objects or concepts, such as white symbolizing purity and black evil. Ironically, in declaring that ideals of beauty were ultimately found in symbolism, these associative theories unknowingly looped back to Plato’s idealized abstractions.

The growing prominence of science from the 17th century made an impression in the philosophy of art, which culminated in an understanding that aesthetics is instinctual, albeit fostered culturally.

Psychologists have generally been more concerned with the principles and characteristics of aesthetics than its wellspring, which has been generally assumed to be creativity.

Gestalt psychology has perhaps been the most illuminating in the phenomenology of art. Gestalt posited 4 principles of aesthetic perception (but not quality): 1) figure and ground, where objects are experienced as distinct from a background; 2) differentiation, in which presentations tend to organize themselves into perceptual structures; 3) closure, by which partly occluded figures are perceptually given a fullness; and 4) wholeness (“good Gestalt”), whereupon more complete patterns take precedence over lesser-developed ones.

Though seemingly unrelated, appreciation of the arts and positive sociality are intertwined. Esteeming the arts enlivens a sense of community.

“The arts enhance civil society. Participation in the arts, especially as an audience, predicts civic engagement, tolerance, and altruism.” ~ American public administration academic Kelly LeRoux

The Evolution of Aesthetics

Symbolism has always been an essential element of aesthetics, as perception is itself a process of abstraction. The level of abstraction in art has changed over the history of its production.

Early on, music and the visual arts were largely aimed at representational qualities that offered an immediate appeal. They were intended to be attractive by resonance with the innate part of us that finds beauty in the harmony of natural forms.

After the cultural dominance of the Christian church in Europe for over a millennium, the Age of Reason resurrected rationalism, reviving its esteem by ancient Greek philosophers. Enlightenment thinkers’ intellectual stance fashioned new perspectives that presented themselves through artistic mediums.

The painting technique called pointillism – pictures comprised of tiny dots of color – was a direct result of appreciating the photonic quality of light. Georges Seurat and Paul Signac developed pointillism in 1886 as of offshoot of evolving impressionism. Painters rather quickly abandoned the technique, though only because of its taxing tedium. Pointillism acted as a steppingstone to further developments in impressionism, and later, expressionism. These were trends floated upon the waters of Romanticism, which was the reaction to the industrialization engendered by the Age of Reason.

The industrial era brought about greater sociological stratification in urban environments, and along with it a stronger sense of alienation. This affected political discourse directly, but had a broader effect on public consciousness that effused into art.

Artists’ ever-restless search for fresh perspectives found succor from social evolution. Avant-garde art was often a leading edge in sociological intellectual development.

Cultural aesthetics gravitated toward work that challenged the intellect by way of increasingly obtuse symbolism: moving from representation to greater abstraction.

Despite this increasing injection of intellectualism, the most popular art remains immediately accessible by being agreeably emotionally evocative. Though the gyre of artistic evolution carved a larger universe, aesthetic core appeal was unmoved. Only stoic intellectuals, or those psychologically bent, desire reminders of estrangement from Nature. However fiercely atonality may stoke the intellect, a birdsong melody more readily brings a smile; and buildings are never as pretty as trees in bloom.

Objectivity Versus Subjectivity

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” ~ ancient Greek saying (~200 BCE)

The age-old question of aesthetics is whether there are standards for the quality of art, or whether art quality is merely a matter of opinion.

If art is entirely subjective, there are no metrics to proclaim any work of art superior to any other: art objects may be comparable, but merits of beauty are entirely within the province of individual taste.

Subjectivity falters in explaining the general statistical preferences of people. We like larger objects to smaller ones, round forms to sharp ones, and complex designs to simpler renditions.

(No one quite knows why people prefer large objects over small ones. It may be an evolutionary adaptation for foraging. People prefer food that they mentally visualize as being bigger.

Aversion to sharp-edged objects is rather obvious from an evolutionary perspective: pointy things pose a potential hazard.

Complexity is prettier than simplicity because detail tickles the mind. But preference for symmetry trumps complexity. People prefer simple symmetrical objects to intricate asymmetrical ones.)

Further, most people choose designs with a bit of originality, but based on a classic form: familiarity with a touch of individuality is ideal. How much novelty is appealing – or how easily someone becomes bored with a design – depends largely upon a person’s experience base. Those with broader experience prefer more originality than novices. If beauty had no biological bent, such ubiquitous, pronounced preferences would not exist.

The objective school of thought considers beauty subject to assessment: that objective criteria exist by which to judge aesthetic quality, individual preferences withstanding. In other words, there is a biological basis for beauty.

The Biology of Beauty

“Beauty is no quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them, and each mind perceives a different beauty.” ~ David Hume

As each individual has their own sense of sensation, every experience is necessarily subjective. Preference for particular perceptions is an individual matter of taste.

The subjective nature of experience withstanding, each species has its set of senses generally attuned in a certain way: there are biological norms in range of sensation.

We cannot refer to the quality of a flower by its reflection of ultraviolet light, as we have no UV reception. In contrast, bees see UV. Hence, flowers appear quite differently to bees than they do to us. From this alone one could easily conclude that bees sense of beauty in flowers differs from that of people.

Similarly, birds hear sounds at a rate of 1/200th of a second, while humans detect sound at only 1/20th of a second. A human hears a slight fluttering of a musical note that a bird distinguishes into 10 different notes. The qualities of songs are altogether different in the ears of birds compared to humans.

From a statistical view, there is average receptivity to patterns of sensory media. What is considered beautiful can be expressed as a bell curve, with a bulge that corresponds to popular taste, and statistical outliers on either side for those respectively preferring something rather more rote or avant-garde. Such diversity is common in traits of all sorts: a product of Nature’s preference for variety.

The biological average of sensation provides a basis to assess the aesthetic of an object. Which is to say there is an objective baseline to beauty, and thereby the quality of an artwork is subject to critical evaluation. It is possible to declare a work of art superior to another via factor analysis of relevant qualities based upon metrics. However unspoken, talented artists do that all the time.

The Human Being

The aesthetic appeal of the human form to other humans is partly biological, partly cultural, and partly individual. First off, as a form of self-affirmation, people tend to have a bias toward others that look like themselves.

The beauty of the human form has 2 main facets: the face and overall body shape. The most attractive faces emphasize features that are biologically appealing.

The face of a strikingly beautiful woman has some combination of larger-than-average eyes, higher-than-average forehead, fuller-than-average lips, shorter-than-average jaw, and smaller-than-average chin and nose. Clear skin, high cheekbones, and lustrous hair complete the picture of beauty. All of these are features of physical health and are indicative of fertile mating material.

Although certain facial characteristics are broadly appealing, people also routinely disagree about the relative attractiveness of faces. This discrepancy owes to personal experience. Faces like those with which we have shared good times are naturally more attractive, as they invoke a sense of pleasant familiarity.


Symmetrical faces are consistently judged more attractive than unsymmetrical ones. Men with high symmetry typically have more sexual partners, quicker access to romantic partners, and induce more copulatory orgasms.

It should come as no surprise that bodily symmetry is an honest signal of health, genetically as well as physically and mentally. All animals consider symmetry appealing, as it is a cue to the ability to produce robust offspring.

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Symmetry has an aesthetic allure generally. An asymmetric apple may be interesting in a quirky way, but people pick fruit at the supermarket partly based on their symmetry.

Mathematicians are strongly drawn to expressions of mathematical and geometric symmetry. Part of the appeal is that symmetry allows mental heuristics to be applied. Students find math problems that do not use symmetry to be vexingly difficult to solve.

“Everywhere we turn we can see symmetrical relationships. They are so pervasive in our daily lives that one is led naturally to wonder if the notion of symmetry is innate in human beings. It is almost as though the notion of symmetry is built into us as a standard against which we measure aesthetic appeal to assess both mental and physical constructs.” ~ Israeli science educator Tommy Dreyfus & Israeli mathematician Theodore Eisenberg


“According to the theory of “visual rightness,” a masterwork is perceived as aesthetically appealing because its figurative structure represents the optimal arrangement of its visual features.” ~ Malaysian psychologist Viren Swami & English psychologist Adrian Furnham

While symmetry has a strong aesthetic appeal, it is subsumed within the nebulous concept of balance.

Asymmetry is found alluring in masterful artworks, and can be even more pleasing than simple symmetry, as it presents a pleasurable challenge to the mind. The signature traditional Japanese aesthetic is largely founded upon balanced asymmetry. The painting of Mount Fuji from which a dragon rises, by 19th-century painter Katsushika Hokusai, illustrates.

Beginning in 1919, Dutch painter Piet Mondrian evolved an abstract form which he termed neoplasticism. This consisted of a white ground upon which were painted an asymmetrical grid of vertical and horizontal lines, with areas populated by the 3 primary colors.

Subjects shown variations of Mondrian’s paintings, including those exhibiting varying degrees of symmetry, consistently preferred the original: apparently Mondrian had achieved ideal asymmetrical balance.

Beauty in Science

“The scientist does not study Nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful.” ~ Henri Poincaré

The allure of aesthetics infects analytics. Mathematicians, natural philosophers, and scientists regularly find symmetry, harmony, and other aesthetic facets as guidelines for finding truth.

“Since the primary object of the scientific theory is to express the harmonies which are found to exist in Nature, we see at once that these theories must have aesthetic value. The measure of the success of a scientific theory is, in fact, a measure of its aesthetic value, since it is a measure of the extent to which it has introduced harmony in what was before chaos.” ~ English science writer J.W.N. Sullivan

Any and every quality of beauty found in Nature is entirely within the mind of its perceiver. One could contend that the exhibition itself is agnostic with regard to aesthetics. Yet that conclusion is belied by an onslaught of evidence.

Every instant of existence may rightly be considered an aesthetic experience. The regularity with which we check our theories of the world via aesthetics suggests beauty is an integral aspect of both Nature and our own nature. Morality is founded on fairness, which is an appraisal of balance.

That does not mean that aesthetics serves as apt signposts to comprehend the mechanics of Nature. The symmetries found in physics equations must be broken for existence to materialize. Evolution is a process of deviation, not harmony.

We cannot comprehend chaos. Our minds insist on fabricating order even when it cannot possible be. The aesthetics that guide us are heuristics to find what we need, not to apathetically characterize what is before us.

That Nature offers a surfeit of beauty, that a hidden order may be discovered amid seeming confusion, suggests that the mind behind Nature – coherence – creatively revels in diversity, intricacy, and pomp. Despite a vast chasm in scale and complexity, the aesthetics of Nature’s mind and our own appear aligned.

In mathematics, squaring the circle is impossible because p is a transcendental number. Therein the deepest beauty lies – trying to comprehend what is impossible to fully understand. If it were any other way, beauty would be a cul-de-sac.

“There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” ~ English philosopher Francis Bacon


“The way in which colors vary is the same from person to person. Despite their subjectivity, colors are trustworthy measures of real object properties.” ~ American psychologist Anya Hulbert

Of all the human senses, vision processing takes the most brain tissue. 60% of the brain is involved, though less than 20% is devoted solely to sight.

The 6 to 7 million cones in the human eye can be divided by their spectral quantities: red (64%), green (32%), and blue (2%). (Blue cones are much more light-sensitive than red or green cones. Their numerical disadvantage is overcome by mental image processing, which provides a compensatory blue amplifier.) Despite these vast discrepancies in sensory wavelength uptake, we perceive colors smoothly and evenly throughout the visible spectrum (380–780 nanometers).

The lower end of the spectrum is of warmer colors (red, orange, yellow), while the tighter wavelengths yield cool colors (green, blue).

“Categorical color distinctions arise before the development of linguistic abilities.” ~ Chinese psychologist Jiale Yang

As with all else, color is a construct of the mind, which does an amazing job with visual perception in maintaining constancy despite varying conditions. Colors are hardly affected by significant changes in ambient light.

Evidently there is active mental scaling to make the world appear stable under ever-changing conditions. As the intensity of light in a wavelength band increases, photoreceptor sensitivity in that band lessens, canceling out the change in illuminated spectrum. Sizes remain consistent at different distances, though this breaks down at large distances, or when looking down from a considerable height. Optical illusions result from perceptual scaling faults.

Color constancy readily fails under artificial light, especially fluorescent lights, whose energy spectra are not smooth but jagged.

Contrast plays an enormous role in vision. The differences between opposite colors and light values are dramatically enhanced when they are juxtaposed. Reds appear redder when placed next to green, blues bluer when situated adjacent to orange, and darks darken when surrounded by light. This phenomenon is termed simultaneous contrast.

The color of an object may be predicted by the ratio of cone excitations from the object and its background. Encoding colors as cone contrasts evolved as a means of maintaining color constancy.

Whereas a surrounding color induces its greater contrast in simultaneous contrast, the opposite effect occurs in color assimilation: a surrounding color insinuates itself. Consider a checkerboard pattern of alternating purple and green squares. Replace a small number of a purple squares with neutral gray and the gray squares take on a greenish cast. If instead gray replaces green, the gray squares become purplish.

Why greater contrast occurs in some patterns and assimilation in others is not fully known, but scale makes a difference. The smaller the patches of color interleaving, the greater the propensity for assimilation.

Unsurprisingly, color discrimination is biological, not cultural.

“Infants’ categorical distinctions align strikingly with those that are commonly made in the world’s different color lexicons. Color categorization is partly organized and constrained by the biological mechanisms of color vision.” ~ English psychologist Alice Skelton et al

Color Psychology

“Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.” ~ Oscar Wilde

The psychological import of color cannot be understated. Colors elicit emotional responses, and so subconsciously shade our affinities and aversions.

“Unquestionably color has a physical effect upon the human organism.” ~ American color maven Faber Birren

Perceptions not obviously related to color are nonetheless affected by hue. Consumers generally make an initial judgment of a packaged product within 90 seconds of exposure to it, and that denouement is largely based on color.

The color of placebo pills is a factor in their effectiveness. Whereas a hot-colored pill works better as a stimulant, a cool-colored pill is a more apt depressant. The relationship is a product of expectation, not of color itself.

The warmth or coolness of a color generally has an excitatory or calming effect respectively. It is as if higher frequency wavelengths are able to impart indifference.

Streetlights which cast bluish light anecdotally reduced crime in certain neighborhoods. And most every heterosexual man is moved by the sight of a woman in a flaming red dress: interpreting it as a sign of being sexually receptive. (Women also interpret a woman in red as being sexually receptive.)

Red is universally associated with arousal. Seeing red speeds reaction time regardless of gender. But red alters perception more for males than females. Men experience time dilation with red in front of them (time subjectively slows), whereas women are not so affected.

Red is a sign of dominance in primates. Owing to increased blood flow, the skin flushes red with anger: an alert signal to which males are more responsive; hence the emotional valance of red differs by gender.

“In the 2004 Olympic Games, contestants in four combat sports were randomly assigned red or blue outfits. If colour has no effect on the outcome of contests, the number of winners wearing red should be statistically indistinguishable from the number of winners wearing blue. However, we found that for all four competitions, there is a consistent and statistically significant pattern in which contestants wearing red win more fights.” ~ English anthropologists Russell Hill & Robert Barton

How people typically react to color varies. This personal preference may be influenced culturally but is rooted in individual biology. Whereas children’s color preferences change, adult color inclination is typically settled.

As with red, color generally has a gender component. Whereas bold colors are typically considered masculine, pastels, particularly pink, are construed as feminine. Again, personal preferences may defy such classification.

“Pink isn’t just a color, it’s an attitude.” ~ American singer Miley Cyrus, who suffers no shortage of attitude.


“Music gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” ~ Plato

Sound turns into music when the mind recognizes a pattern. Mere repetition of sound patterns can turn environmental noise into music. Constructively, music is the language of emotively evocative sound.

“Music is the universal language.” ~ American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Humans are not the only composers of music. Other animals, notably songbirds, design ditties that please them.

Some birds prefer to sway rather than sing. Parrots are particularly fond of dancing to rhythmic beats.

The emotional resonance of music transcends culture. Though music’s cultural diversity is vast, many elements of music strike the same emotive chords.

“Musical language, like verbal language, is heuristic in the sense that its forms predetermine for us certain modes of observation and interpretation.” ~ American composer and musicologist Leonard Meyer, channeling Edward Sapir

Music becomes more accessible as it is filled with easily identified patterns; but only to a degree. Music of simple, entirely predictable patterns is dismissed as childish, and is unsatisfying as excessively conforming to mental expectations.

The best music is characterized by a plethora of seemingly fortuitous patterns spiced with sprinkles of noise. Such confection slightly defies expectations while still rendering their satisfaction.

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“The true goal of music – its proper enterprise – is melody.” ~ German composer Johann Kirnberger

There are 2 essential facets of music: melody and rhythm. A melody comprises tonal patterns: a series of musical notes perceived as integral. A tone is a sound with a certain dominant pitch and resonance. Pitch is frequency. Resonance is vibrational quality.

Rhythm is the percussive equivalent of melody: the pattern which comprises beat or pulse. Rhythmic instruments invariably produce sound at a certain pitch, and so contribute a melodic element to music, just as the notes of melodic instruments appear within a rhythmic structure.

The notes used in musical compositions, particularly simple ones, are all arranged into particular pitch intervals, called keys. A key refers to the dominant (tonic) note of the scale used.

The relation (harmonic) of other notes in a key creates varying degrees of tension or resolution with the tonic. The earliest-recorded employment of harmony in western European music was in the 9th century.

Musical works are built from tonal tensions through time, often at different volumes. Temporal tension works in 3 ways: tempo (fast/slow), movement (smooth/jerky), and phrasing (staccato/legato, which is: disconnected/connected notes).

Single tones are commonly combined into chords of 3 or more notes, with each put at a specific interval from the primary pitch. The notes of chords form harmony. While chords of all sorts are frequently employed in many forms of music, notably those influenced by European culture, they are absent in other cultures.

Melodic line is considered the horizontal stream of music. Harmony is its vertical aspect. This is readily apparent in written (sheet) music.

That music is inexorably biologically bound is shown by the simple fact of universal expectations that notes follow particular patterns. The delight of music comes in the combination of confounding and satisfying expectations.

A consonance is a tonal interval that sounds stable in the key: either a dominant or subdominant chord, whereas a dissonance sounds transitional. To the mind’s ear, a consonance is pleasant unto itself, while a dissonance begs for resolution to a consonance. By combinations of consonances and dissonances emerges tonal melodies. This is the musical equivalent of storytelling, which necessarily relies upon conflict, tension, and ultimately, resolution of some sort.

Keys (scales) may be major or minor. Whereas major keys play largely with happy consonance, 4–3 and 8–7 transitions excepted, minor keys reek of dissonance.

“Styles in music are basically complex systems of probability relationships.” ~ Leonard Meyer

Owing to its patterned nature, musical language is often considered to have mathematical qualities. The various regularities found to be musical in different genres adhere to certain formulas.

“Basic ordered patterns emerge in music using the same statistical mechanics that describes emergent order across phase transitions in physical systems.” ~ American physicist Jesse Berezovsky

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“By vitalizing various basic terms expressing different emotions, and juxtaposing them in an ordered pattern, making some of them fundamental, persistent, and finally victorious, and others subsidiary, intermittent, and finally vanquished, a composer can express an unambiguous moral attitude toward life.” ~ English musicologist Deryck Cooke

Whereas traditional music reveled in melodies and form, music’s progress into the industrial age became that of breakage. Modern music moved toward noise, with increasingly obscure rhythms and prolonged passages of atonality. This trend peaked in the latter part of the 20th century, with “progressive” rock and jazz, as well as classical compositions that often sounded more like the scratchings and howls of caged animals than music in the traditional sense. It was a culmination in the cultural evolution of a species that had confined itself into urban jungles and suburban boxes, and had become disgruntled pieces in bureaucratic machines, disoriented from Nature.

Artistically, shock was always the simplest path to novelty. After all, writing gorgeous melodies time and again is damned difficult. It’s much easier to jumble sounds, or simply rap to a bass-laden beat that any imbecile could follow; whence what passes for music today.

Despite lyrics that often insult the intelligence and sense of civility, there is a crude savviness to rap music: heavy bass makes its listeners feel powerful, which explains why it is so popular among the underclass.

“Bass sound and voice are associated with dominance.” ~ Chinese American sociologist Dennis Hsu

Western classical composers began the march that would morph into tonal commotion. In searching for new avenues of expression, they ratcheted the tension: toying with suspension of consonance, exploring the force of dissonance. In doing so, compositions came to turn musical tension on its head. Whereas once consonance was king as a constant touchstone, it now sits on a largely silent throne, watching the pawns of dissonance skitter about, fruitlessly seeking release.

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“Music is what feelings sound like.” ~ Anonymous

Music is such a powerful emotive force because the mind is a pattern processor, and biology dictates that emotions associate with attention affinity.

Sight involves discerning objects via edge detection and contrasts. Vision’s patterns of recognition are largely subconscious, and not amenable to conscious entrainment. The product of sight comprises static, spatially related symbols; perhaps pleasing, but seldom enthralling.

In contrast, music is a stream which forms patterns via continued attention. The stimulation of ascertaining, suspending, and resolving the patterns may be a rapt captivation that is emotionally engaging.

“When listening to music, humans apply cognitive processes that are capable of dealing with long-distance dependencies resulting from hierarchically organized syntactic structures.” ~ German psychologist Stefan Koelsch et al

Whereas music is immediately, aesthetically visceral in its patterns, emotional access to graphic art is a symbolic step away, relying upon meaning by analogy.

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” ~ English philosopher Aldous Huxley


Earworms are songs that stick in the mind. An earworm has an overall melodic shape common in Western pop music: a fairly generic, easy-to-remember melody. One of the most common contour patterns is heard in “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” where the 1st phrase rises in pitch, and the 2nd falls.

But an earworm also possesses some peculiar features, such as note repetitions or interval leaps that set it apart from the average pop song.

“Musically sticky songs seem to have quite a fast tempo, along with a common melodic shape and unusual intervals or repetitions, like we can hear in the opening riff of “Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple.” ~ American music psychologist Kelly Jakubowski

Preferences by Personality

“People do actually define themselves through music.” ~ English music psychologist Adrian North

A well-done study asked participants to rank novel (to them) music. Each was also given a standard personality test that rates 5 components of personality: openness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, and conscientiousness.

Open people prefer “sophisticated” music (defined as complex, dynamic, and inspiring) while not appreciating “mellow” music (relaxing, slow, and romantic) or “contemporary” music (electric, percussive, and not sad). Extroverts like “unpretentious” music (uncomplicated, relaxing, and acoustic). Whereas agreeable people like most everything, neurotics dislike most everything.

Only conscientiousness does not predict musical taste. Perhaps conscientious people have better things to do than sit around listening to music.

Another study linked music preference to broad thinking styles: empathizers (who have a strong interest in people’s thoughts and emotions), systemizers (who are strongly interested in patterns and systems), and those with a balance between the two. Unsurprisingly, empathizers like mellow music, whereas systemizers go for intensity.

“Empathizers preferred music that featured low arousal (gentle, warm, and sensual attributes), negative valence (depressing and sad), and emotional depth (poetic, relaxing, and thoughtful), while systemizers preferred music that featured high arousal (strong, tense, and thrilling), and aspects of positive valence (animated) and cerebral depth (complexity).” ~ English psychologist David Greenberg et al

 Whale Songs

Many different whales sing, with a sophistication rivaled only by birds in subtlety and complexity. Whale songs can be heard by other whales over thousands of kilometers. Tunes are arranged to account for the acoustics of the ocean basin in which they are sung. Whales off Newfoundland in northeast Canada can hear whales near Bermuda.

Whale songs are sung by males only. Each has his own distinctive style: a compromise between the recognizably conventional and the creative.

Whale ditties are essentially extended conversations between males in musical form. Whales also sing to attract female mates.

Whale song is a dynamic, cultural phenomenon. Songs gradually change over time, with different sounds and themes year by year.

Whales in different habitats sing divergently, while whales of the same species in the same ocean basin typically sing versions of the same song at the same time. There are whale song dialects.

There are exceptions to similitude in the same ocean basin. Humpback whales in distant parts of the southern Indian Ocean sing much different songs. Songs from Madagascar may share only a single theme from songs sung off Western Australia.

Whales pick up on what others are singing. Just a few “foreign” singers can introduce stylistic changes into the songs of a population.

The songs of humpback whales follow structural patterns strikingly similar to those of human and avian composers. Their rhythms are much the same.

Whale tunes could easily organically grow without any repetition. Instead, like human songs, they prefer reiteration, often with variation.

Whale riffs last a few seconds. Whales create themes out of several phrases before starting the next theme. A common whale song structure follows our pop music convention: a thematic statement which is elaborated, with a return to a variant of the original theme (aba song form).

Humpback tunes typically are a duration between that of a pop music ballad and a symphony movement: 5 to 25 minutes. The length may be like our song forms because they have a similar attention span. Individual themes are often repeated sequentially over several hours.

Humpback ditties contain repeating refrains that form rhymes, which suggests that they use rhyme in the same way: as a mnemonic device that aids remembering complex material.

Humpbacks are capable of a 7-octave range, yet they use musical intervals between notes that are selfsame to the intervals in human musical scales.

Whales are quite capable of unpleasant sounds: grunts, roars, and stutters. Yet their tone and timbre resemble human music: whales mix relatively pure tones with percussive or noisy elements in their songs in a ratio corresponding to Western symphonic music.

The last common ancestor of the evolutionary lineage that led to modern whales and humans was 60 million years ago.

“Many whales have very traditional feeding grounds and their migratory routes occur along shallow coastlines which are now some of the noisiest, most heavily impacted habitats. If females can no longer hear the singing males through the [acoustic] smog, they lose breeding opportunities and choices. The ocean area over which a whale can communicate and listen today has shriveled down to a small fraction of what it was less than a century ago.” ~ American zoologist Christopher Clark


Sonic aesthetics have deep evolutionary roots. The sonnets of several animals, even cricket chirps (stridulation), are recognizable as having musical qualities.


“Dance is a song of the body.” ~ American modern dancer Martha Graham

Dance is a universal human behavior, and often plays a role in courtship contexts. As such, that its aesthetic appeal is biologically based is indisputable.

Female dance is considered captivating when it has exaggerated hip swing and asymmetric bilateral movements of the arms and thighs.

Hip swing positively identifies feminine movement, as any male watcher of women’s buttocks can attest (and there is no shortage of those). In females, the hips are the key indicator of dance quality. Asymmetric limb movements signal motor control and balance: an honest signal of health.

“To males they’re showing off their reproductive quality, perhaps their hormonal state. To female rivals they’re showing off how good they are.” ~ English psychologist Nick Neave

Similarly, women prefer certain dance moves by men, especially exaggerated upper body movements. Overall, moves which demonstrate strength, balance, and agility are alluring. These naturally coincide with bodily health.

Confidence in dancing is a statement of character.

“You see somebody dancing, or hear their voice, and you make a lot of detailed judgments about their personal properties. Those inferences often go far past the information that’s truly there, yet they exist.” ~ English psychologist Frank Pollick

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“We all should dance more.” ~ English psychologist and dancer Bronwyn Tarr

The psychological power of dance is considerable. Dancing can improve fitness and reduce stress, as well as boost mood and self-esteem. Dancing in groups encourages social bonding.

There is something special about matching the same behaviors at the same time.” ~ New Zealander social psychologist Paul Reddish