Why do we like the kinds of music we do? It could have to do with our brains (as well as the shape of our ears). We all love the sights and sounds of Christmas, but there are some noises that are hard to take, like SQUEEEK! The sound of fingernails on a chalkboard sets our teeth on edge, but it’s easier to take if we think it’s music. This may explain why certain songs can sound like raucous noise to one person but seem musical to someone else.

In a new study, scientists removed information from actual audio clips of people scraping their nails or bits of chalk against a chalkboard. They then played these modified clips to willing participants. Half the study subjects were told what the sounds were, while the other half thought that they were listening to selections from contemporary music. Scientists asked the participants to rate each sound’s unpleasantness, and also gauged the subjects’ stress responses to the noises by measuring their blood pressure and heart rate.

As you may have suspected, participants who knew that the sounds they were hearing came from nails on a chalkboard rated these sounds more unpleasant, and experienced a higher degree of physical symptoms, than the people who thought they were listening to music, showing that we listen as much with our brains as we do with our ears.

And we’d better get our brains fired up fast, because other research shows that more of us are going deaf than ever before! Nearly a fifth of all Americans 12 years or older have hearing loss so severe that it may make communication difficult.

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