Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Our field of perception is constantly crammed with tastes, smells, sights, sounds and other intrusions from the outside world. To make sense of this multifarious bombardment, our brains not only choose which stimuli to pay attention to, but also organize that information. The procedure is aided by prototype recognition, or the categorization of perceptions based on the central or average representation of a class. Countless hues enter our vision, but we sort them out based on a finite number of colors—red, blue, green, etc.—with modifying adjectives—light, dark, -ish, etc. The same occurs when deciphering shapes, words, weather conditions, food odors, facial expressions, and so forth.
Organizing experiences in this way is highly economical. The brain simplifies reality by placing an enormous variety of information into basic classifications. Virtually everything we perceive is processed in this stereotyping way. Yet, as obvious as this might be, we are less apt to recognize the role of prototypical elements in ascertaining beauty.
In 1990, psychologists Judith H. Langlois and Lori A. Roggman published a study entitled, “Attractive Faces are Only Average.” They asked college students to rank the beauty of human faces in a series of photographs. Their conclusion: faces with features approximating the mathematical average of all faces in a population are the most attractive. On the flipside, the researchers noted, “unattractive faces, because of their minor distortions . . . may be perceived as less facelike or as less typical of human faces.” We subconsciously reference the prototype of “faceness” when evaluating appearances. Our preference for averages and aversion to extremes is likely rooted in a primal sorting out of genetic regularities from potentially harmful mutations. Normal is safe and safe is beautiful.
Of course, when we go beyond photographs into real life, unconventional faces can be (and often are) judged favorably. In such cases, beauty is said to reside in the “eye of the beholder.” However, this very cliché acknowledges a baseline or common appearance of beauty from which an individual departs. (The natural preference for a prototypical face is overridden by extra-facial qualities, like kindness, talent and a sense of humor.)
As it is with faces, so it is with music. Within a given population in a given time and place, certain musical features are normative. These can be likened to the mathematical average of faces, and might include major and minor triads, common chord progressions (e.g., I-V-vi-IV), rising and falling melodies, normal structures (e.g., 8-bar form), and so on. These features comply with expectations and suggest stability—traits also detected in the “normal” face.
In music, temporary deviation from these elements can be a measurement for separating “interesting” from “bland” and “good” from “mediocre.” But deviating too much is, to most ears, an unwelcome mutation. As a rule, popular music is popular because it is prototypical. Attractive songs are only average.
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