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Music Listening Is No Easy Task With a Closed Attitude...

17/04/2013 15:43 BST | Updated 16/06/2013 10:12 BST

Since I was but a nipper I learnt that frogs go 'ribbit'. But only one species of frog makes this noise, and it is not particularly common or significant. It is the Pacific Treefrog, and only thanks to the sound recordists of the Hollywood studios did it reach the heady heights of batrachian audio dominance.

In the 1950's the film studios needed froggy sounds to provide background audio, so the recordists went out with their microphones and recorded the convenient Pacific Treefrog, which makes it's home in ponds on America's West Coast. The audio has been reused and recycled over and over (who wants to go back to swamps at night poking mics at frogs?) and thusly frogs of every shape, size and species are lumped with the 'ribbit' sounds, at least in the Anglophone world of Hollywood audiences.

From the association of the ribbit with frogs, to the replication of a camera's shutter sound when a picture is taken on a smartphone, some things feel wrong without the right sound. Car companies spend thousands researching the perfect 'thunk' of the car door shutting, to provide the most auditorily pleasing noise. An iPhone has no shutter, but we still expect the click when the picture is taken.

Take Bernard Herrmann's 'The Murder', a cinematic score better known as the theme for Hitchcock's Psycho. The screeching glissando of the violin, joined by the other strings, is probably the most famous theme in cinema. Instantly recognisable and instantly spinechilling. But why do the alternating semitone quavers, followed by a 'shrieking string' sound, instil such dread? It could be a musical expression of awe, surprise, romance or victory, but we know it as the sound of a bloody murder in a motel shower. Thinking of the Psycho strings theme in any other way just doesn't sit right. But this has been learned by the listener. If Hitchcock had not used Herrmann's score then the sound could have been defined differently, but still in a way constrained by our perceptions of what music fits what dramatic scene.

The timbre of a sitar instantly conjures visions of India, the pluck of a banjo sends us to folksy Americana. Hear a harpsichord and we are in a renaissance court, an accordion we are in a Parisian café. If we had never heard these sounds in their setting we would be introduced to them with fresh ears.

In this information tsunami that is 21st century life, it seems impossible to escape the prejudices and preconceptions of those that decide what sound fits what scene. The tastemakers, the radio producers, the film directors and admen. They tells us the major chords are for the happy scenes, and minor chords for the sad ones. Before them came the musical directors of the church, deciding which melodies were most glorifying to God. The heritage of western classical harmony says that a tonic to dominant note sounds good, a tonic to major seventh sounds dissonant. And the whole harmonic system is based on 12 tones on a equal tempered tuning.

How many times has a pop song used the same four chords? The repeated tonic major to dominant major to submediant minor seventh to subdominant major. It feels so familiar to the listener because it is the same harmony repeated endlessly, from the Beatles 'Hey Jude' to Lady Gaga's 'Pokerface'.

Sometimes jazz, experimental and neoclassical music sounds so alien that people struggle to give it a chance. Of course I can't deny that these genres own their fair share of vain, obtuse audio pretentiousness. but (as Duke Ellington may have said), there's only two kinds of music - good and bad.

Music is heard through the cultural weights that we live with. We cannot hear a sound without prejudice. There must be a way to hear with an attitude of objectivity. Listening to music doesn't need to be passive, just use an open attitude.