JUL 18, 2016 5:02 AM PDT

Musical Preferences: Cultural or Inborn?

Music is viewed as a language of its own in most cultures. Different styles, rhythms and lyrics add to the landscape of different environments and become a part of the history of any given people. What is loud and unpleasant in one culture may be pleasing in another. In Western styles of music, what is enjoyed versus what is found grating can vary from generation to generation, and even between geographical areas that are not that far apart. Whether it’s classical or pop however, in Western music some combinations of notes are generally considered more pleasing to the ear than others. A chord of C and G, for example, sounds much more agreeable than the grating combination of C and F# (which has historically been known as the “devil in music”) That “dun dun dun” that precedes any scary part of a movie comes from this kind of arrangement.
 Do we like music based on our brain or our experience?
There are plenty of studies that look at how music is perceived and processed in the brain. Neuroscientists have noted that after a stroke, music can often help patients recover speech abilities and in people with Alzheimer’s, musical rhymes can improve memory.  So the question becomes, is our ear for music culturally based, or is it hardwired into our brains? A group of researchers at MIT and Brandeis University looked at this question and their results say a lot about music, culture and the brain.
 
The research team studied two kinds of musical combinations, consonant chords and dissonant chords. In consonant chords, the notes are simpler and closer to each other on the scaled. Dissonant chords, for example the C and F# are not as harmonious and to the western ear can sound unpleasant. The team worked qith 100 participants from a remote Amazonian tribe known as the Tsimane who had little or no exposure to Western music or its patterns. When they listened to examples of dissonant and consonant chords, they didn’t express a real preference and actually did not rate the dissonant chords as unpleasant at all.
 
Josh McDermott, the Frederick A. and Carole J. Middleton Assistant Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT and Ricardo Godoy, a professor at Brandeis University, led the study. It is published in the July 13, 2016 issue of the journal Nature. In a press release, McDermott stated, “This study suggests that preferences for consonance over dissonance depend on exposure to Western musical culture, and that the preference is not innate.”
 
The team did two sets of research, in 2011 and in 2015. The played music for the Tsimane tribe members as well  as four other groups: Spanish-speaking Bolivians who live in a small town near the Tsimane, residents of the Bolivian capital, La Paz. And groups of Americans that included musicians and non-musicians.
 
McDermott described the results as follows, “What we found is the preference for consonance over dissonance varies dramatically across those five groups. 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.”
 
These results are what led the team to conclude that musical preferences come from culture and not inborn neurological preferences. Several control features were built into the study to make sure the results were as accurate as possible and the team feels confident in the outcome. The video below goes into more detail about the study so check it and let us know in the comments what you think.

 
Sources: The Atlantic MIT News The Washington Post
About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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