What do screaming Justin Bieber fans and dignified Beethoven buffs have in common?
They might argue that it’s not much, but they’ve both been trained to appreciate certain combinations of notes, like a perfect fifth chord, that musicians in all genres have long deployed because they were considered universally pleasurable — until now.
According to a study coauthored by an MIT professor and published Wednesday in the scientific journal Nature, what makes a chord sound good or not — what makes it consonant or dissonant, in scientific parlance — is not some preference hardwired into our brains. We aren’t born with a taste for some chords over others.
Rather, study author Josh McDermott said, our tastes are shaped by the music we’re exposed to. And because nearly everyone is exposed to Western music, whether pop songs or symphonies, people have wrongly come to believe that there is a shared, universal standard for what makes music sound good.
To test this theory, McDermott and coauthor Ricardo Godoy, an anthropologist at Brandeis, flew, bused, and then canoed to visit the Tsimane tribe in the Bolivian Amazon, whose members had almost zero exposure to Western music. The researchers played classically harmonious chords, like the perfect fifth of B and F#, along with classically unharmonious ones, like the minor second of D# and E, which rings with a melancholy feel.
To their surprise, the tribe members rated both chords equally likable. In other words, the supposed innate preference for certain types of music is anything but.
“It raises the possibility that things vary a lot more from culture to culture than people might have wanted to accept,” McDermott said. “And it really underscores the importance of looking at the music of other cultures if we really want to understand what music is all about.”
“There’s often a tendency to assume that structures that are important in Western music are just important, period,” he said. “Our results provide a pretty strong cautionary note of one example where that is pretty clearly not the case.”
The results were surprising, McDermott said, because the scientific community has long hypothesized that musical preferences might be rooted in biology. His and Godoy’s findings buoy the theories of less scientific groups, like musicians and composers, who have maintained that taste in music is a cultural creation.
The new study is one of the most conclusive ever performed on the issue of consonance and dissonance, McDermott said, but many questions remain. He doesn’t know, for example, at what age these learned preferences start manifesting themselves, or if those exposed to just Eastern music show the same preferences.
In fact, Godoy said, they don’t even know why those exposed to Western music learn to prefer consonance — they just know that they do.
Finding another group like the Tsimane to conduct follow-up studies, though, might be difficult.
“It would have been a lot easier to do all this 40 years ago, before Western music had sort of taken over the world via the Internet,” McDermott said. “It’s getting pretty hard to find people that don’t have a lot of exposure to Western music. It’s pretty much ubiquitous.”
Godoy put it in more stark terms: “We need a little more focus on trying to do good experiments and get good data on how people from these societies interpret sounds, before they vanish forever.”
But as tribes and populations evolve, so do music tastes. According to Susan Rogers, an associate professor at Berklee College of Music who has studied music cognition, the findings demonstrate how fluid musical preferences can be.
Over many millennia, she said, humans have learned to find consonance beautiful — but “it could go another way,” she said.
“Music is constantly evolving; we experiment all the time. Future generations may not regard the difference between consonance and dissonance to be as meaningful as we find it today.”