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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Hypothesis

Musical beauty and information compression: Complex to the ear but simple to the mind?

Nicholas J Hudson

Author affiliations

Computational and Systems Biology, CSIRO Livestock Industries, 306 Carmody Road, St. Lucia. Brisbane, Queensland 4067, Australia

Citation and License

BMC Research Notes 2011, 4:9  doi:10.1186/1756-0500-4-9

Published: 20 January 2011



The biological origin of music, its universal appeal across human cultures and the cause of its beauty remain mysteries. For example, why is Ludwig Van Beethoven considered a musical genius but Kylie Minogue is not? Possible answers to these questions will be framed in the context of Information Theory.

Presentation of the Hypothesis

The entire life-long sensory data stream of a human is enormous. The adaptive solution to this problem of scale is information compression, thought to have evolved to better handle, interpret and store sensory data. In modern humans highly sophisticated information compression is clearly manifest in philosophical, mathematical and scientific insights. For example, the Laws of Physics explain apparently complex observations with simple rules. Deep cognitive insights are reported as intrinsically satisfying, implying that at some point in evolution, the practice of successful information compression became linked to the physiological reward system. I hypothesise that the establishment of this "compression and pleasure" connection paved the way for musical appreciation, which subsequently became free (perhaps even inevitable) to emerge once audio compression had become intrinsically pleasurable in its own right.

Testing the Hypothesis

For a range of compositions, empirically determine the relationship between the listener's pleasure and "lossless" audio compression. I hypothesise that enduring musical masterpieces will possess an interesting objective property: despite apparent complexity, they will also exhibit high compressibility.

Implications of the Hypothesis

Artistic masterpieces and deep Scientific insights share the common process of data compression. Musical appreciation is a parasite on a much deeper information processing capacity. The coalescence of mathematical and musical talent in exceptional individuals has a parsimonious explanation. Musical geniuses are skilled in composing music that appears highly complex to the ear yet transpires to be highly simple to the mind. The listener's pleasure is influenced by the extent to which the auditory data can be resolved in the simplest terms possible.