Music Cultural in Taste, Not Innate
Art And Culture

Music Cultural in Taste, Not Innate

All cultures enjoy music, but tastes vary. Are the variations cultural or biological? What is it that makes some combinations of notes pleasant and others less so?
New research, published in Nature, suggests that preference depends on nurture, not nature. Pleasant combinations in western music, whether classical or pop, are known as “consonant,” while unpleasant ones are called “dissonant.”
In western culture, a combination of C and G notes, for example, is considered more pleasant than F and B. An editorial published in Nature notes that this combination, nicknamed the “devil in music,” was once considered so obnoxious that religious authorities banned it.
The contrast between consonance and dissonance has been key to western musical composition as far back as Ancient Greece. The works of great composers, such as Beethoven, depend on tension between the two.
Experts have long debated what creates people’s musical preferences, medicalnewstoday.com reported.
Scientists have argued that perceptions of consonance and dissonance are biological and therefore innate, which means everyone has them. The mathematics of consonant intervals and the underlying regularities of musical sound make them appealing to humans.
Composers and experts in musical culture, on the other hand, believe that preferences for consonant sounds are specifically created by western music culture. People like the sounds that are familiar.
In the current study, a team led by Josh McDermott, an assistant professor of neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, MA, and Ricardo Godoy, a professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA, carried out two studies, one in 2011 and one in 2015.
They compared the reactions of five groups of people toward consonant and dissonant notes.
One group was the Tsimane’ (Chimane), a remote Amazonian population of around 12,000 people, who live by farming and foraging. Exposure to western culture and music is limited in this group. Over 100 people from the Tsimane’ participated in the study.
Tsimane’ music involves singing and instruments, but not harmonies. Normally only one person or line plays at a time.
Researchers compared their findings for the Tsimane’ with those of four other groups with varied exposure to western music.
From Bolivia, they chose a group of Spanish-speaking people from a town near the Tsimane’, and another group living in La Paz, the Bolivian capital. From the United States, there were two groups, one consisting of musicians and the other non-musicians.
An initial test ensured that participants could distinguish between consonant and dissonant sounds. The findings indicate that people who live in cultures where western music is not generally present do not have a preference for consonance. This suggests that the preference for consonance and harmonic natural sound is not innate. Instead, it seems likely that culture shapes musical taste.


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