Robert Estrin - piano expert

Is Music Subjective? What Do You Hear?

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In this video, Robert gives ideas on whether or not music is subjective.

Released on February 24, 2021

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

This is, and I'm Robert Estrin asking, what do you hear? You're going to be a part of this video. There's a music coming in your way, and just a little bit. The real question is, is music subjective? How much of our listening experience is cultural and how much is innately human? And this is such a tough question to answer. I thought I'd elicit your help in this. And I've got some original music that no one has ever heard before, which is a perfect vehicle for exploring this subject. But first, let's talk a little bit about how much of music is just cultural. For example, we're all used to hearing scary music like a diminished seventh chord. It's classic. The old pictures of the silent movies with a woman tied to the railroad tracks and the train is coming and you hear that. And so we assume those same emotions just from hearing the music. And you're wondering, is that just because we've been conditioned? Well, there is some of that, certainly, but there's more to it than that.

I've discussed in the past how tonality in a way goes against nature. What do I mean by that? Well, tonal music is based upon the natural occurring overtone series that's contained in all pitched sounds naturally. That's why a chord like that sounds very, very natural to us because indeed every single musical tone you hear contains those basic pitches in it anyway, whereas when you listen to harmonies that clash, it's grading. And one of the reasons for that is simple intervals are easy to digest because its simple math. An octave is a two to one relationship. That's very soothing, very easy to calculate. You're essentially calculating intervals in your head. I bet you don't even realize that, but that's exactly what you're doing. When you're hearing an interval, you're counting vibrations per second. And when they double, that's an octave and it's easy to hear, it's easy to calculate. Your mind can figure that one out. A fifth is a one to three relationship. That's pretty, but when you get to dissonances, they're very, very distantly related mathematically, and they're hard to hear as a result.

So some of it really is a biological, yet some of it is certainly cultural. Is major or minor inherently happy or sad? Hear a major chord. And it seems very cheerful compared to a minor chord. How much of that is innate in our biology or how much is just cultural? Well, you're going to hear some original music and you're going to get the opportunity to comment on as well as YouTube and get a discussion going to see how this music makes you feel. I hope you enjoy it.

So there you have it, some music that no one has heard before, that you get the chance to comment on and get a conversation going, talk to each other on the blog at, as well as YouTube, and see what this music makes you feel. And we'll get a feel then together, how much is innate? How much is cultural? Because after all, YouTube is global, and so as So we have people from all around the world, people with different cultural biases. And we want to hear from all of you. Thanks so much for joining me. Again, this is Robert Estrin at, your online piano resource with lots and lots of content for you. Hope you enjoy this. We'll see you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Richard on March 26, 2021 @10:51 am PST
Robert Estrin on March 27, 2021 @9:11 am PST
They are all different!
JJK on March 19, 2021 @10:54 am PST
Hi Robert,

As usual your videos are top-notch and thought-provoking. I really appreciate the weekly videos, and watch them regularly. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and sensitive expertise!

At your invitation, I have a question for you.

Background: While I was educated in the classical music tradition, my adult sons are more in tune with contemporary North American blues and rock.

I often share your videos with them, and we enjoyed discussing your videos on “How many scales are there?” and your question “Is our response to music innate/subjective or cultural?” They subsequently sent me the following video as additional food for thought.

We would be really interested to know what your take is on this piece by Adam Neely.
Robert Estrin on March 19, 2021 @2:08 pm PST
I look forward to watching this video. At first I thought it said, "Hey Jude"! And after thinking that song through, I realized it modulates to the sub-dominant which is interesting in itself!
Don Lester on February 25, 2021 @7:25 am PST
I always enjoy impressionistic art and music. All of the basic human emotions were expressed. That’s what I heard (and saw).
Tosh * VSM MEMBER * on February 24, 2021 @1:56 pm PST
Two comments: How I reacted to your music I believe depended on:

1. My intellectual and emotive reactions to the video images that were shown as you played the piece...which probably were derivative of my reactions to other images I've seen in the past.

2. All of the other music I have listened to in my past, which forms a complex context within which the music you played was placed and how I reacted to the myriad pieces I've heard in the past formed my very own emotional and intellectual context or cultural basis for my subjective experience of listening and reacting to your new music.

Hope this makes sense. It's difficult if not impossible to put into words what one experiences in a non-verbal domain such as music. And often I'm left wondering whether there is anything to be gained by trying to do so.
The power of one's own cultural context in determining one's initial reaction to "new" music I've experienced in particular with regard to 2 different musical experiences: 1. The first time I heard Prokofieff's Violin Concerto No.. 1...hated took many later hearings of this for me to begin to understand and eventually love this piece. 2. The first time I heard Ravi Shankar perform Indian classical music (ragas) on his sitar...hated it...seemed so strange that I couldn't understand how this type of music could be enjoyable to listen to...but after many different hearings of this type of music, I got to love this genre of music. So I do believe that one's experience with music is always "subjective" and that this subjectivity can change over time with new listening experiences.
Robert - host, on February 25, 2021 @9:53 am PST
You are right. Music is a language and there are many dialects you must become familiar with in order to appreciate them. Not all music can be fully appreciated on first listening.
Linda Stine on February 24, 2021 @7:19 am PST
The music created a very strong visual for me - definitely outdoors in nature. Nothing frightening, just a sense of wonder at aspects of nature - some that are majestic and some that are minute and delicate. At some points it made me feel that I was seeing things under the sea, but I was at peace with being there ( which is odd since I have never scubaed or snorkeled).
Robert - host, on February 24, 2021 @9:14 am PST
You have a creative visual sense - thanks!
jjjude1 * VSM MEMBER * on February 24, 2021 @4:47 am PST
Robert, this was such an interesting exercise. My opinion is that how it makes us feel is cultural and personal. I can tell you love these complex and unusual harmonic pieces. I even think there is a masculine quality, not necessarily male, but I think a woman watching the waterfall would compose differently in many cases.
Robert - host, on February 24, 2021 @9:15 am PST
I hadn’t even considered the differences genders experience listening to music - good point!
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