If you hum the first two notes of “The Simpsons” theme song, the musical interval you’re hearing—the pitch gap between the notes—is known as a “tritone,” and it’s commonly recognized in music theory as one of the most dissonant intervals, so much so that composers and theorists in the 18th century dubbed it diabolus in musica (“devil in music”).
What researchers have cleverly done is consider music’s ability to conjure up highly specific mental states. Tiny, almost immeasurable features in a piece of music have the power to elicit deeply personal and specific patterns of thought and emotion in human listeners.
Social psychology has found a way of explaining an impressive variety of human behaviors. It’s known as construal level theory. The theory helps explain many things like, why absence makes the heart grow fonder, and why we rarely follow through on New Years resolutions. In these cases, what seemed a certain way from afar turns out, up close, to be an entirely different beast altogether.
This investigation of music’s building blocks may be more relevant than you suppose. Experts in the production room can hone a track—the timbre, tone, rhythm, and phrasing—with digital precision. These songwriters and producers are the true geniuses behind the success of popular music today, and they seem to have an intuitive grasp of the phenomena underlying the findings. An extra breath-sound here, a pitch adjustment there. So the next time you hear a piece of music on the charts, it may be interesting to wonder, how many components were manipulated in order to change the way one thinks.