Is Musical Preference a Matter of Culture?

July 14, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Ricardo Godoy conducting experiment in Bolivia
Photo credit: Alan Schultz. Caption: Study co-author Ricardo Godoy from Brandeis University conducts the experiment in a village in the Bolivian rainforest.

Researchers explore how exposure to Western music shapes our taste in harmonies.

Musical chords that sound pleasant and agreeable to our ears are known as consonant. Those other chords — the ones that sound unpleasant and even sinister — are called dissonant. The perfect fifth (C and G) is a classic example of the former, while the Devil’s interval (C and F#) epitomizes the latter.

But are we hard wired to prefer certain sound combinations over others? Or is musical preference, like so many other things, a product of our experience?

These questions have interested musicians and scientists centuries. Recent efforts to resolve them, however, have been challenging, largely because so few people in the world are unfamiliar with Western music and its consonant chords.

"It's pretty hard to find people who don't have a lot of exposure to Western pop music due to its diffusion around the world," Josh McDermott, from the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, in a press release.

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"Most people hear a lot of Western music, and Western music has a lot of consonant chords in it. It's thus been hard to rule out the possibility that we like consonance because that's what we're used to, but also hard to provide a definitive test."

A rare exception is a remote Amazonian tribe known as the Tsimane, who live in a farming and foraging society of about 12,000 people, and have very limited exposure to Western music. Their own music, both singing and instrumental, usually features only one performer at a time.

McDermott and his team asked 100 members of the tribe to rate how much they liked dissonant and consonant chords, and performed experiments to ensure that the subjects could make out the difference between the two types of sounds.

Surprisingly, Tsimane people rated dissonant and consonant chords as equally pleasant.

For comparison, the researchers repeated their tests on four other groups of people with varying levels of exposure to Western music: Bolivians living in a small town near the Tsimane, residents of the Bolivian capital, American nonmusicians, and American musicians.

The preference for consonance over dissonance varied dramatically across the 5 groups. "In the Tsimane it's undetectable, and in the two groups in Bolivia, there's a statistically significant but small preference,” McDermott says. “In the American groups it's quite a bit larger, and it's bigger in the musicians than in the nonmusicians."

In their paper, published in the journal Nature, the researchers conclude that chord preference is “presumably determined by exposure to musical harmony, suggesting that culture has a dominant role in shaping aesthetic responses to music.”

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