Skytopia > Articles > World's most unanswered music questions    (article created 23/02/06)

World's most unanswered music questions

Over time, I have gathered together many questions about the fundamental nature of music, and decided to create and maintain this page to bring light to them. Answers to some of them may already exist in books and papers, although I suspect that most of them have yet to be answered properly. In fact some of the questions may not have been asked at all!

From September 2006, I will research the questions through reading and my own analysis, and will update this page accordingly. If anyone else out there knows the answers to any of them, please contact me at the usual email address.

The progress of music is contingent not just on people's musicial taste, but also on the state of the theory. If we can find common denominators in the best music, and eventually form algorithms to 'rate' or even compose music, that can only be a good thing! A lot of the questions assume a non-relativistic position, but it should be noted that a significant lack of possible explanations for some of the questions could be ammunition for relativistic or postmodern thinkers.

For every question, the following information will (eventually) be given:
  • a: Possible answers (with scores on how convincing I think they are). These will be theories, old and new, with those currently held most promising to be highlighted.
  • b: My own theory (if I have one), its details, and how certain I am of it.
  • c: The importance of a complete answer expressed as a score out of ten, based on its insight into the nature of music.



  • Should one distinguish between (for example) a sharpened fifth and augmented fifth, or are they both equivalent in functionality?
  • Is the twelve note chromatic scale somehow more fundamental than other n-note scales (13, 16 or 19 etc.). Why?
  • Which of the the twelve note scale tuning systems is the 'correct' one (if any)? How big a part does acculturation factor in?
    A: Very difficult to say for sure. See my dissertation for more insight into both of these questions..

  • Is there something particularly special about the standard diatonic major scale (t-t-s-t-t-t-s) compared to other modes (dorian or melodic minor etc.)?
  • Is the third or triad essentially the fundamental building block of harmony for all cultures and eras, or at least for tonality?
  • Do all cultures, past and present, hear a 'perfect fifth' interval the same way that most people in the modern world do? In particular, has any person or culture found the diminished fifth (C + Gb) or augmented fifth (C + G#) interval to sound more consonant than the perfect fifth?
  • Why do the chords C, F, Bb, D, F, A and C, F, Bb, Db, F, A sound better than the chord C, F, B, D, F#, A in almost all musical contexts?
  • In terms of how the brain reacts to music, are changes of key best expressed as a nested hierarchy or a linear chain?
  • Can one replace all chords types with other simple major/minor chords, and still retain most or all of the functional harmony of a piece? If so, what are the processes for achieving the conversion?
  • Do certain chords or chord progressions establish a change of key center more strongly more than other chords? How about if these chords could still fit into the old key signature?
  • When a temporary change of harmony takes place (for a bar or two's worth) with notes that are outside the home key, could one conceivably say that we have changed key? How about 4, 8 or more bars worth? If not, where's the dividing line?
  • Can a chord have a mix of two or more roots?
    A: Not generally in traditional music theory, but maybe. See my "Theory of Multiple Chord Roots" to explore this idea.

  • Is the root of a chord solely determined by its notes, or also influenced by the key and/or previous and successive chords?
  • Can surface and background phenomena such as passing/neighbour notes, suspensions, appoggiaturas, and even melody line simply be treated as an extension of the harmony?
  • According to to traditional music theory, are accidentals spelled according to notational convenience, the current key, immediate future key, or a mixture of these?
  • For theoretical purposes, should accidentals be spelled according to the current key, immediate future key, or should both be taken into account?
  • Should the various modes be represented separately from key, and if so, how can one distinguish between simple harmony changes in a single major key..., and changes of key but with the respective modes so that the appearance is still as if we're in a major Ionian key? (example Key of C in Ionian, switching to the key of D in dorian mode, could still count as if we're in the key of C).
  • In two chord cadences, is the antecendent mostly irrelavent in determining the structure of the piece? In other words, can't we combine Plagal with Authentic (where they both share the same consequent) ?
  • The perfect fourth in medieval music is said to have been heard back then as a consonance, which was replaced with the third in the Renaissance. However, could it not be said to be a perfect fifth in inversion? If so, is medieval music under the umbrella of tonal music after all?
  • Why do chords generally sound better with larger spacings between the low notes (bass in particular), and smaller gaps in the higher notes?
  • What are the most common chord progressions?
  • What are the various competing systems used to define consonance or dissonance of an interval?


  • Aesthetically, could timbre be a manifestation of rhythm but, except of course, on a much smaller scale?
  • Do rhythms in higher (longer) levels of music have the same importance as those in shorter time-spans?
  • What musical cues should we look for when dividing a piece into hierarchical sections (example: if there are no bar lines)?
  • What (if anything) is intrinsic to 'binary' rhythms (2/2, 2/4, 4/4, 8/8 etc.) or 'trinary' rhythms (3/4, 3/8, 6/8 etc.) which (possibly) separate them rhythms such as 5/4 or 7/8 time?
  • How should the division of metrical time be formalized in music? Is the current time signature (4/4 or 3/4 etc.) system ideal, or only a simplification?


  • Should a timbre have perfectly integer partials to most clearly define a single 'note' or 'pitch' to the listener?
  • What kind of instrument timbre range (fixed timbre for each note), would best suit a monotimbral, polyphonic piece of music covering many octaves? Does anything beat the piano in this regard?
  • Regarding music with a beat, in what ways, and to what degrees is the percussion contingent on the rest of the music? How 'interchangable' is a drum track if it was overlayed against a completely different melody? In other words, do certain sounds inherently 'belong' to a certain type of melody or set of instruments?
  • Regarding music with a beat, is it just as effective for the hi-hat, flute, bass, etc. to keep the pulse instead of the bass drum, and for the bassdrum to act out the rhythm of the hi-hat, flute or bass? If not, why not?
  • Regarding music with a beat, why does it sound ineffective for a very low pitched hi-hat to operate as a bassdrum, and a high pitched bassdrum operate as a hi-hat? Is this to do with the pitch of the sound, or its timbre?
  • Do people who enjoy large amounts of vibrato (for example, in opera) able to distinguish between fractional adjustments in intonation?


  • What is the range of human hearing?
    A: 10^-5 micropascals to 64 Pascals (6.4 million range) [1].

  • What is "Just noticable difference" between two musical intervals (assume they're played alternately as separate tones, rather than as a chord) ?
    A: Probably around 1/30th of the critical bandwidth (the critical bandwidth depends on the frequency), or about 1/12th of a semitone.

  • What is the shortest time a sound can last to give a sensation of pitch?
    A: 0.013 seconds according to this source [2].

  • Is it possible for a single person to hear the same pitch higher or lower at different times?
  • Is it possible for a single person to hear the same interval larger or smaller at different times?
  • Assuming a perfectly harmonic complex tone (saw wave say), to what degree should one stretch the octave so that the higher note is perceptually the 'same' as the lower?
  • Assuming a perfect sine wave, to what degree should one stretch the octave so that the higher note is perceptually the 'same' as the lower?


  • Can we somehow show or provide evidence that a given piece of music is better than another?
  • Could the best (most satisfying) music ever be composed by an algorithm or even a mathematical formula?
  • Could the best (most satisfying) music ever be judged by an algorithm or even a mathematical formula? Is this easier than it would be to compose?
  • What is it about person A's brain that gives them better taste in music than person B?
  • To what degree (if any) is a person's bad/good musical taste, inherited from their parents?
  • How many degrees of magnitude are considered possible between a piece of music considered 'tolerable' and a theoretically perfect piece of music?
  • Why do we get bored of a piece of music after many listens? Assuming a given length and initial quality, do some pieces 'age' quicker depending on their intrinsic makeup?
  • What attributes, no matter how vague, can one say contribute to good music?


  • Is the study of atonal theory essential to appreciating an atonal piece of music?
  • How easily can computers make truly atonal music?
  • How many people have hated atonal music at first, but then grown to love it? Do their favorite atonal pieces contain elements of tonality?
  • How many people have liked or loved atonal music at first, but then grown to hate it?
  • Do the most ardent admirers of atonal music in fact have a tonal piece as their favourite piece of music?
  • Are people who enjoy atonal music, more likely to subscribe to aesthetic relativism where one piece is no better than another?
  • If I don't like atonal music, is that because I'm trying to treat it as tonal music, forcing tonal relations between the 'harmonies' in the piece? Do people who like atonal music have a 'switch' in their mind to temporarily ignore tonal relations?
  • Is the appreciation of truly atonal music anything to do with the way one can discern imaginary patterns by looking at noise on a TV?
    The following questions are effectively one large question, but asked from
    different angles for clarification and to help give more insight into the phenomenon.

  • For people who like atonal music, can an atonal piece of music sound roughly as good if one third of the notes are transposed a semitone down, a third are unchanged, and a third transposed a semitone upwards? How about if voice leading is kept roughly intact, and where scales still comprise of notes spaced a semitone or two apart?
  • For an atonal piece of music, could each semitone be transposed an eighth of a tone up and down alternately for each note, and still sound as good? (e.g. C=25 cents, Db=75c, D=225c, Eb=275c etc. etc.)
  • Do the best (or most well known and respected) 'atonal' pieces actually contain elements of tonality?
  • Is the appreciation of completely atonal music down to the rhythm, texture, timbre, dynamics, and patterns in the piece, and not any harmony/chord elements? If so, isn't tonal music just atonal music with the added dimension of tonality? With the appropriate modifications, can an atonal piece essentially be moulded into a tonal piece (rhythm, pattern and dynamics etc., being roughly similar), where virtually nothing appreciable is lost, and the enjoyment from tonality is gained?
  • Is there an atonal piece of music which anyone can enjoy, and which they believe contains no discernable elements of tonality whatsoever? (preferably one which also has no rhythmic or timbral/textural interest).


    [1] David M. Howard and James Angus, "Acoustics and Psychoacoustics - Second edition", Focal Press (2001), p80.
    [2] John Backus, "The Acoustical Foundations of Music", W. W. Norton & Company, Inc (1969), p112.


    Music theory and Art aesthetics - Old article supporting the idea that music can be rated and evaluated objectively, outside of human opinion. Contains survey and results.
    The Field of Music Cognition - More questions, this time, from a cognitive angle.

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    Please ask for permission should you wish to use the text material on these pages.