It’s often said that there’s no accounting for taste, so whether you’re into Beethoven or Black Sabbath, Mozart or Madonna, your musical preferences are generally considered to be the result of a highly personal character quirk. Scientists and musicians alike have spent years pondering whether these sonic biases are the product of one’s own innate nature or external influences. To resolve this seemingly unanswerable question, researchers have had to travel deep into the Amazon, where a highly isolated tribe has shown them that when it comes to musical taste, we are all a product of our environment.
Regardless of which genre you favor, it’s likely that, as a Westerner, you’ve been exposed to everything from pop to jazz. As such, you will be used to hearing certain combinations of notes that seem to “go together”. These are known as consonant notes, and form the basis of Western musical structure. Other combinations sound out of place, or dissonant, and are often inserted into songs to create a sense of tension or deliberate discomfort.
It has been argued by many that our preference for consonant sounds is rooted in biology, and therefore universal to all humans. However, others claim that our soft spot for consonance is actually a cultural construct, produced by the fact that we are so used to hearing Western music.
Given that the tentacles of the mainstream music industry extend to all corners of the globe these days, testing out this theory is pretty challenging, as it can only be achieved by finding people who have never heard of the likes of Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber.
Image: The contrast between consonance and dissonance is fundamental to Western musical structure. Africa Studio/Shutterstock
A team of scientists therefore traveled deep into the Bolivian Amazon to conduct a series of experiments with a native community called the Tsimane’, who are largely unfamiliar with Western popular culture. Though they have their own musical tradition, their songs tend to lack harmony and polyphony, which means they are unlikely to have had much exposure to either consonance or dissonance.
After listening to pairs of notes, Tsimane’ volunteers were asked by the researchers to rate the pleasantness of these sounds. Amazingly, the Tsimane’ showed no preference for consonance over dissonance, finding both to be equally pleasant. By contrast, Westerners who took part in the same experiment always described consonant notes to be nicer than dissonant ones.
To check that the Tsimane’ understood the concept of pleasantness when relating to sounds, the scientists asked them to rate recordings of agreeable vocalizations such as laughter, as well as threatening ones like gasps. The fact that they always preferred the laughter indicates that their reaction to natural sounds is equal to that of Westerners, even though their reaction to music is not.
Reporting their findings in the journal Nature, the study authors conclude that “consonance preferences can be absent in cultures sufficiently isolated from Western music, and are thus unlikely to reflect innate biases or exposure to harmonic natural sounds.” Instead, they suggest that the Western penchant for consonance is “presumably determined by exposure to musical harmony, suggesting that culture has a dominant role in shaping aesthetic responses to music.”
Image: The Amazon rainforest is one of the last remaining places not to be conquered by mainstream popular culture. Dr Morley Read/Shutterstock