University Research Leads to Surprise Finding on Skull Resonance and Musical Preferences

Ever wonder why some music can lure you to the dance floor while other melodies are a turn off? Researchers at William Paterson are exploring whether it might have something to do with the size and shape of your skull.

Michael Gordon, assistant professor of psychology, Jitwipar Suwangbutra, a senior majoring in psychology, and Rachelle Tobias ’13 tackled a simple yet novel idea: Since skulls of different sizes have different resonant frequencies, does the size and shape of the skull affect people’s musical preferences?

Gordon developed the idea for the study based on previous projects by Suwangbutra and another student.

“When you tap the temporal bone—the hard bone behind the ear—it creates a ringing sound that is physical but you can’t hear it yourself,” says Suwangbutra. “Each person has a unique, individual sound wave. And that sound wave is the main, fundamental frequency each skull resonates at.” The goal was to see if that resonance affects how a person perceives music.

Suwangbutra and her colleagues tested two groups of approximately twenty men and women. The participants listened to simple, original melodies in each of the twelve major keys, and then rated their preferences.

Then, the researchers measured the vibration pattern of each participant’s skull by firmly pressing a microphone against the temporal bone. Each participant thumped their skull with their hand. “That thump, that ‘dooo sound,’ is the pitch of your skull,” explains Gordon.

The study showed that people with similar-sized skulls tend to dislike the same melodies. The results were surprising in two ways. “First, we were shocked that we found anything at all—that the skull was a reasonable predictor,” says Gordon. The other surprise was getting opposite results. The researchers thought that skull size might predict what music people liked, not what they disliked.

Suwangbutra, the lead researcher, presented the finding to physicists at the 165th Acoustical Society of America Meeting in Montreal in summer 2013. The conference organizers found the study so intriguing that they bumped it up from a poster project to a presentation with an accompanying citation in their publication.

Gordon gave Suwangbutra the opportunity to be a first author on the study because she took on major responsibilities for the project. “She designed (composed) stimuli, did all the sound manipulations, rendered the stimuli into the experiment, ran all the participants, wrote her talk, and presented at the conference,” he explains.

“In my lab I try to stress getting students involved as much as they are willing,” says Gordon. “I want them to learn to think, act, and interact like scientists. The only way to do that is to facilitate the opportunities for students to take the lead on projects.”

The study was presented at APCAM (Auditory Perception, Cognition, and Action Meeting) in Toronto in November 2013 and Suwanbutra is working on replicating the study with different people. “Since this is an original finding, we really want to drive this home with the new study and have it published,” she says.

“I didn’t really get to narrow my area of study until I came to William Paterson,” says Suwangbutra. She transferred to William Paterson from Rutgers after meeting Gordon and discovering that they had similar research interests. “Now if I Google my name in Google Scholar, I’ll see a citation and I never thought I would have gotten that during my undergraduate years. So that’s really cool.”

Does the Shape of Your Skull Affect Your Musical Preference?