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Utilitarian Music

June 12, 2023

"Music has charms to soothe a savage breast," is the first line of the 1697 play, The Mourning Bride, by English poet and playwright, William Congreve (1670-1729). Congreve was a contemporary of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), and his works were likewise critical of the social values of his time. The saying is often misquoted as "savage beast," possibly because there are still too many people in the world who are uncomfortable with any blush of sexuality.

Botticelli Birth of Venus

"So, this isn't a nude beach?"

La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus), a circa 1485 tempera on canvas painting by Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), now on display at the Uffizi Gallery (Florence, Italy).

Botticelli was careful not to have Venus reveal too much of her body, although the Venus de' Medici, a marble sculpture of Aphrodite on which the painting was based, is somewhat more revealing. The seashell on which she stands was a symbol for a woman's vulva in classical antiquity; thus, the origin of the slang term, "bearded clam."

(Wikimedia Commons image from Google Arts & Culture. Click for larger image.)

The oldest known musical instrument is a 35,000 year old Neanderthal flute made from a vulture bone.[1] It was discovered in 2009 in a cave in southwest Germany, and its construction was certainly aided by the fact that bird bones are hollow.[1] The 1958 film, Teenage Caveman (Roger Corman (b. 1926), Director) has the main character, portrayed by Robert Vaughn (1932-2016), discovering that he can make music by blowing across a hollow reed.[2] There is evidence of a hunting bow being used as a string musical instrument in a cave painting from about 13,000 BC in the Trois Frères cave in France.[2]

The Ancient Greek mathematician, Pythagoras (c.570-c.495 BC), developed a mathematical framework for tone production in strings. He found that a string half the length of another would vibrate at half the wavelength, and double the frequency; and that strings of lengths in whole number ratios to each other will generate more pleasant sounds when played together. This so-called just intonation will not produce unpleasant beat frequencies. Modern tuning, called 12-tone equal temperament, allows the playing of instruments in different keys, and its mathematical basis is that the spacing between successive notes (a semitone) are in a ratio of the twelfth root of 2 (12√2).

There's a Latin maxim, "De gustibus non disputandum est (About taste, there is no argument)." There is no argument about the physics and mathematics of music, and there is also no arguing about a person's choice of music. A Ph.D. materials scientist with whom I worked liked bluegrass music. I always thought this odd, but my own family thought that my liking of the music of Philip Glass (b. 1937) was odd. Some people enjoy "elevator music," an example being Muzak.

Top-40, News, Weather, and Sports

Top-40, News, Weather, and Sports.

I worked my way through an undergraduate education as a Top-40 disk jockey, and broadcast engineer for television and radio.

"Spinning the disks" had a format, symbolized by ACABAFAD, developed by musicologist and disk jockey, Bill Drake (1937-2008).

In this format (as I remember), songs played in a half hour consisted of A songs being in the Top-10, C songs as former members of the Top-10 trending downwards, B songs trending towards the Top-10, F oldies, and D (when time allowed), something that could be faded into the news.

Elevator music is one type of utilitarian music; that is, music designed for a specific purpose, and the specific purpose of elevator music is to provide a soothing, non-intrusive background that masks other sounds. No one wants to hear the pre-lunch stomach rumbles of fellow passengers, or the mechanical noise of motors and cables used for the elevator function. People likewise set their radio alarm clocks to a loud music station that encourages them to jump out of bed and start their workday.

A recent open access paper in Scientific Reports by scientists and musicologists from Aarhus University (Aarhus, Denmark), the Royal Academy of Music Aarhus/Aalborg (Aarhus, Denmark), and the University of Amsterdam (Amsterdam, The Netherlands) has examined the similarity of two types of utilitarian music; namely, music for study and music for sleep.[3-4] This is contrary to the expectation of the mood-arousal hypothesis that study music should be uplifting to boost arousal and increase cognitive performance, whereas music used as a sleep aid should be calm, gentle and slow to decrease arousal.[3]

At first glance, music for sleep should lower arousal, while music intended to induce better concentration while studying should increase arousal.[3] For studying, the so-called Mozart Effect proposed that listening to Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 (Köchel 488) increased performance on spatial cognitive tasks in an IQ test.[3] Today, the mood-arousal hypothesis proposes that this effect is caused by an increased arousal caused by pleasant music, such as Mozart classical music.[3] Study music should be music of low complexity having no words, a stable tonality and minimal changes in tempo and loudness.[3] Whereas study music induces arousal while not not being too distracting, sleep music should reduce arousal.[3]

Researching this topic was eased by the availability of playlist data on streaming services, such as Spotify.[3] The research team examined playlists designed for studying or for bedtime relaxation, and they found that these playlists had similar characteristics, such as slow tempo and repetitive patterns.[4] Statistical methods, such as k-means clustering analysis, were used to compare the similarity of audio features between different playlists.[3-4] There were significant differences between sleep and general datasets in Loudness, Energy and Valence (see table), but there was no large difference between the study and sleep playlists.[4]

Audio Features Accessible in the Spotify Application Program Interface (Data from Table I of Ref. 3)
Feature Description
Acousticness Played with acoustical instruments
Danceability Suitability for dancing
Energy Value of intensity and activity
Instrumentalness Does or does not contain vocals
Liveness Music performed live
Loudness Audio amplitude
Speechiness Uses spoken words
Tempo Beat duration
Valence Music is positive, happy, and cheerful

The research authors speculate that study music and sleep music both have a pleasant, non-disturbing auditory environment, which lowers arousal for sleeping and enables increased focus for study.[3] The repetitive patterns and slow tempo of the music help to lower heart rate and reduced stress, and this creates a nice environment for both studying and sleeping.[4] Says Rebecca Jane Scarratt, a study author and Ph.D. candidate at the Center for Music in the Brain at Aarhus University,
"Our study suggest that music used for studying and music used for sleeping share many characteristics in terms of tracks, genres and audio features. This similarity highlights the potential of music to create a pleasant but not too disturbing atmosphere, enabling individuals to focus on studying and relaxation for sleeping."[4]

Kolmogorov–Smirnov distances

The Kolmogorov–Smirnov distance between general music and sleep music, between sleep music and study music, and between general music and study music across all nine audio features as listed in the table.

(Created using Inkscape from data in fig. 4 of ref. 3.[3] Click for larger image.)

Of course, with so many varieties of musical genres and audio features of selections within these genres, individual preferences are also important.[3] The exact influence of these music types on arousal still needs to be investigated, and there's no definitive explanation for the similarity of the affect of study music and sleep music beyond the idea that they both creates a pleasant and serene atmosphere that enables focus on studying and lower arousal for sleeping.[3]


  1. What's the world’s oldest musical instrument?, BBC Music Magazine, August 10, 2022.
  2. Teenage Caveman, 1958, Roger Corman, Director, on the Internet Movie Database.
  3. Rebecca Jane Scarratt, Ole Adrian Heggli, Peter Vuust, and Makiko Sadakata, "Music that is used while studying and music that is used for sleep share similar musical features, genres and subgroups," Scientific Reports, vol. 13 (March 23, 2023), Article no. 4735, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-31692-8. This is an open access article with a PDF file available at the same URI.
  4. Music for sleeping and music for studying share surprising similarities, study finds, Aarhus University Press Release, April 20, 2023.
  5. Rebecca Jane Scarratt, Study-Sleep-Analyses Software, GitHub.

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