Research highlight

Sociology: A cultural basis for musical preference


July 14, 2016

Musical preference for consonance over dissonance varies with an individual’s musical experience rather than being an inherent trait of the auditory system, according to a study published in Nature this week.

In Western cultures, certain combinations of musical notes are perceived as pleasant (consonant), and others as unpleasant (dissonant). The aesthetic contrast between consonance and dissonance is often assumed to be biologically determined and common to all humans. However, this notion had not been tested in populations lacking exposure to Western music until now.

Josh McDermott and colleagues measured musical preferences in 64 members of the Tsimane’ society - a native Amazonian society with minimal exposure to Western culture. They compared the results with the preferences of populations with varying levels of exposure to Western music in the United States and Bolivia (23 US musicians, 25 US non-musicians and 50 Bolivian city- and town-dwellers). To replicate and extend the results, the authors also tested a different group of 49 Tsimane’ listeners and a comparison group of 47 musically experienced listeners in the United States. Participants were presented with sounds (chords or vocal harmonies) over headphones and asked to rate their pleasantness on a four-point scale. The authors found that the Tsimane’ rated consonant and dissonant sounds as equally pleasant, whereas Bolivian city- and town-dwellers preferred consonance, albeit to a lesser degree than US residents.

The researchers also examined the responses of Tsimane’ participants to familiar sounds, such as laughs and gasps, and synthetic sounds varying in roughness. They found that, in this respect, the Tsimane’ judgements were similar to those of Westerners, suggesting that they do not differ from Westerners in terms of acoustic discrimination abilities or aesthetic responses to familiar sounds and acoustic roughness.

These findings suggest that the preference for consonant chords results from exposure to particular types of polyphonic (in this case, Western) music, rather than from the biology of the auditory system.

doi: 10.1038/nature18635

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