It can often feel like there is something deep and universal about a collection of notes making up a chord or arranged into a beautiful melody. For some, music can crawl up the spine and evoke real shivers. Over the centuries, Western music has assumed its highly developed system of harmony and intervals was tapping into some grand truth innately recognized by all humans; after all, even Justin Bieber's music is based on mathematical ratios described by Pythagoras himself.
But new research shows that it may all be in the listener’s head, Sarah Kaplan reports The Washington Post. “People tend to assume that features of music that are present in Western music have some kind of fundamental importance, some biological basis,” Josh McDermott, an auditory neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who traveled to the Amazon to study musical preference, tells Kaplan. “But this result suggests that isn't the case.”
A large chunk of the Earth’s population has been introduced to the Western musical tradition, meaning people grow up exposed to similar tone patterns and musical idioms. So McDermott decided to find a culture with no exposure to Western music to see if there was any biological or universal preference for Western harmonies.
According to a press release, anthropologist Ricardo Godoy invited McDermott to study members of the Tsimane. The indigenous people of some 12,000 farmers and foragers in the Bolivian Amazon have their own musical tradition, but it involves singing one line at a time and does not involve harmonies.
In 2011 and again in 2015, McDermott visited the Tsimane with Godoy. He tested 250 people playing them a series of notes, including consonant chords and dissonant chords, noting their preference for each, Ramin Skibba reports at Nature News.
The team also gave the same tests to Spanish-speaking villagers in a nearby town, people in the Bolivian capital of La Paz and groups of American musicians and non-musicians.
While they Tsimane could tell the difference between harmony and dissonance, they did not express a preference for one over the other. “What we found is the preference for consonance over dissonance varies dramatically across those five groups,” McDermott says in the press release. “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 nonmusicians.”
The study concludes that musical preference comes from familiarity. "Rather than being an inevitable consequence of auditory system biology,” the researchers write in the study published in Nature, “it seems that the preferences exhibited by Western listeners for harmonic frequencies arise from exposure to Western music.”
In other words, if someone grows up with Bach and the Beatles, they learn to love the major scale. If they grew up in a family that listens to nothing but dissonant composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Balinese Gamelan music, then, well… they may need a separate study.
There is some evidence, however, that there could be some biological basis for the music we like and dislike. Skibba reports that McGill University neuroscientist Robert Zatorre points out that research on macaque monkeys show that they have neurons in their brain that respond differently to consonant and dissonant tones, something that may occur in the human brain as well. Still, he adds that humans are born with flexible brains and nervous systems, and are highly influenced by the environment they grow up in.