Why do you like certain music?

A study in the journal "Nature" offers new insight into how our aesthetic taste in music develops.

Take a listen to these two sound clips. Which do you like better?

Chances are you picked sample A. You're in good company. Since the ancient Greeks, Westerners have found A more pleasing than B. A is the kind of chord that predominates in the music of Mozart or Taylor Swift, B in the works of Igor Stravinsky and Black Sabbath.

It's long been thought that humans were hardwired to like sample A. But a new study in "Nature" by Brandeis researchers Ricardo Godoy and Eduardo Undurraga (now at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) suggests culture plays a larger role than biology in explaining musical preference. Cultural influence plays "a dominant role in shaping aesthetic responses to music," the researchers wrote in the journal article. Josh McDermott of MIT was the lead author on the study. Alan Schultz of Baylor University also contributed.

One of the central distinctions in Western music is between consonance and dissonance. Sample A is an example of a consonant chord. To the Western ear, it sounds pleasant and uplifting. Sample B exemplifies dissonance. One archetypical dissonant chord — the notes C and F# together — is known as the "devil's music" because of its dark overtones.

For the last twenty years, Godoy, a professor of international development at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, has studied the Tsimane', an indigenous society in the Amazonian rainforest in Bolivia. The Tsimane' (pronounced chee-MAH-ney) have limited exposure to Western culture, including Western music. Where they live can only be reached by canoe.

The researchers played an hour's worth of dissonant and consonant musical sounds for over 100 Tsimane' study participants. The Tsimane' found both equally pleasing.

To establish a baseline, the researchers played the same music for three other groups —undergraduates in the United States, Bolivians living in the capital city of La Paz, and Bolivians living in the rural town of San Borja. They'd all had at least some exposure to Western music. They all preferred consonance to dissonance.

Tsimane' music consists of songs performed by one individual at gatherings of adults to drink "chicha," the local alcoholic beverage. In recent history, there is no tradition of group performance. "They are unlikely to have much exposure to consonant or dissonant chords," says MIT's McDermott. "This suggests that a preference for one over the other emerges from exposure to musical harmony."

Would you find Tsimane' music pleasing? Click on the samples below to find out.

Categories: Research, Science and Technology

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