Neuroscientists have investigated the origin of musical tastes for several decades. Scientists have pondered whether this preference has cultural origin or hardwired in the human brain. A recent study from MIT and Brandeis university suggests that musical tastes are cultural, and not hardwired in the brain.
Western styles of music rely heavily on harmonies. In such a system, certain combinations of notes are generally considered more pleasant than the others. Consider the following video that presents a consonant and dissonant set of musical chords. Chances are that if you are reading this article, you might enjoy the consonant chords (good-sounding chords) more than the chords that are dissonant (jarring chords).
For several centuries, scientists have believed that the brain is wired to respond favorably to consonant chords such as the fifth (as one of the notes is five notes higher than the other). Ancient Greeks were the first to observe that in the fifth and other consonant chords, the ratio of frequencies of the two notes is usually based on integers. For example, the ratio of the two notes in a “perfect fifth” (C and G) is 3:2. There are others who believe that these preferences are cultural, due to exposure to music with consonant chords.
Josh McDermott, who is a Frederick A. and Carole J. Middleton Assistant Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT explains why this is a difficult debate to be resolved.
“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,” McDermott says. “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.”
In 2010, Godoy, an anthropologist who has been studying a remote Amazonian tribe known as “Tsimane” for several years collaborated with Josh Mcdermott on a study of how the Tsimane respond to music. Tsimane have a very limited exposure to Western music.
Godoy says “They vary a lot in how close they live to towns and urban centers. Among the folks who live very far, several days away, they don’t have too much contact with Western music.” The music of Tsimane features both singing and instrumental performance. However, unlike western music, they do not consist of harmonies, involving only one musician at a time.
In this study, more than a 100 people belonging to the remote Amazonian tribe with little or no exposure to Western music participated. Researchers found that the listeners rated the dissonant musical chords such as the combination of C and F# just as likeable as “consonant” chords.
Two sets of studies were conducted, each in 2011 and 2015. The participants were asked to rate how much they liked dissonant and consonant chords. Before the experiment, the researchers also investigated if the listeners were able to differentiate between dissonant and consonant chords and found that they could. A group of Spanish-speaking Bolivians living in a small town of near the Tsimane, and residents of the Bolivian capital, La Praz participated in these experiments. They also tested groups of American musicians and non-musicians.
“What we found is the preference for consonance over dissonance varies dramatically across those five groups,” McDermott says. “In the Tsimane it’s undetectable, and in the two groups in Bolivia, there’s a statistically significant but small preference. In the American groups it’s quite a bit larger, and it’s bigger in the musicians than in the non-musicians.”
The Tsimane also showed similar responses to all the other groups, when asked to rate non-musical sounds such as laughter and gasps. They also gave the same rating of dislike for a musical quality known as acoustic roughness.
“This study suggests that preferences for consonance over dissonance depend on exposure to Western musical culture, and that the preference is not innate,” says Josh McDermott.
This study was led by McDermott and Ricardo Godoy, a professor at Brandeis University, led the study, which appeared in Nature on July 13. Alan Schultz, an assistant professor of medical anthropology at Baylor University, and Eduardo Undurraga, a senior research associate at Brandeis’ Heller School for Social Policy and Management, are also authors of the paper.