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Is Musical Taste Innate?

Researchers test the idea that musical tastes have a genetic basis.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

There’s something universal in the appeal of Bach or Mozart, isn’t there? The way the music soars and falls, the resolution of complex harmonies—we can all connect to that. Likewise, we can all agree that there’s something unpleasant about the sound of a slightly detuned piano or people banging on metal objects. It’s in our biology, right?

Well, no, according to a study published today in the journal Nature: Contrary to the surprisingly persistent belief that there is something primally satisfying about the dulcet tones of a Bach concerto, people with little to no exposure to Western culture—and therefore Western music—have no preference for its standard harmonies over more dissonant sounds.

As recently as last year, researchers argued that a need to communicate clearly led to the Western preference for consonance over dissonance (or at least the desire to have one resolve into the other). But if that’s so, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Assistant Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences Josh McDermott and his colleagues write, that preference ought to extend to people who’ve never actually heard Western music. The researchers turned here to the Tsimane’, an indigenous people of lowland Bolivia who have limited exposure to Western culture, living as they do in the remote rainforests. The Tsimane’ people’s music has no harmony or polyphony—musicians playing multiple notes at once—meaning it is almost completely devoid of Western notions of consonance and dissonance.

We like Western music not because there’s something special about it — it’s just what we’re used to.

To see if Tsimane’ had a preference for consonance, as biological theories of music appreciation predict, McDermott and his colleagues sat down with 64 Tsimane’, 48 other Bolivians, and 48 United States residents, and played them all a series of sounds, including consonant and dissonant musical chords, either sung or played on a synthesizer. The key result: While Bolivian city dwellers and U.S. residents preferred conventionally consonant sounds to dissonant ones, Tsimane’ did not.

So why do we Westerners like our Western music, if the answer isn’t something inherent in our biology? “[R]ather than being an inevitable consequence of auditory system biology, it seems that the preferences exhibited by Western listeners for harmonic frequencies arise from exposure to Western music because the musical structures prevalent therein tend to produce harmonic frequencies,” the researchers write.

In other words, we like Western music not because there’s something special about it—it’s just what we’re used to.