It has long been believed that our musical preferences are hardwired into our brain. A 2009 study conducted by Nokia concluded that our musical taste is affected by genetic factors, but according to the latest study conducted by researchers from MIT and Brandeis University, it has been found that our taste in music depends on our cultural surroundings rather than being hardwired into our brains.
In western music, including jazz, rock, classic and pop some musical note intervals are considered pleasant to the ears, known as consonance, while others are considered jarring, known as musical dissonance. Intervals such as 5th or octave, for example relation between A and E is a 5th, are known as consonant intervals since they are pleasing to the ears, whereas tritones, for example the relation between A and D#, also known as the Devil’s Note, are considered dissonant. The study explores the reasoning behind our preferences for one over the other, and finds that our preferences depend on our cultural environment instead of being innate.
In a study of more than 100 people belonging to a remote Amazonian tribe with little or no exposure to Western music, the researchers found that dissonant chords such as the combination of C and F# were rated just as likeable as “consonant” chords, which feature simple integer ratios between the acoustical frequencies of the two notes.
Josh McDermott, the Frederick A and Carole J Middleton Assistant Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, said, “This study suggests that preferences for consonance over dissonance depend on exposure to Western musical culture, and that the preference is not innate.”
It’s been a firm belief of many scientists that our brains are hardwired to prefer consonant sounds over dissonance, for centuries now. Musicians in societies dating at least as far back as the ancient Greeks noticed that in the fifth and other consonant chords, the ratio of frequencies of the two notes is usually based on integers, in the case of the fifth, a ratio of 3:2. The combination of A and E is often called “the perfect fifth”. While some researchers believe that these preferences are culturally determined. They believe that exposure to the kind of music we listen to or which is popular in society affects our preference. So cultures where music which features consonant chords is popular, their people will be inclined to prefer consonant chords. Same is true for cultures where dissonant music is popular.
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This link between culture and music has been difficult to prove, since there are very few societies who remain immune to the impact of Western music. “It’s pretty hard to find people who don’t have a lot of exposure to Western pop music due to its diffusion around the world,” McDermott says. “Most people hear a lot of Western music, and Western music has a lot of consonant chords in it. It’s thus been hard to rule out the possibility that we like consonance because that’s what we’re used to, but also hard to provide a definitive test.”
In 2010, Godoy, an anthropologist who has been studying an Amazonian tribe known as the Tsimane, for many years, asked McDermott to collaborate on a study of how the Tsimaneian people react to music. The Tsimane tribe was considered for this task since most of the Tsimane tribe, is a small farming and foraging community of about 12,000 people, having very limited exposure to Western music. The Tsimane’s own music features both singing and instrumental performance, but usually by only one person at the same time.
“They vary a lot in how close they live to towns and urban centers,” Godoy says. “Among the folks who live very far, several days away, they don’t have too much contact with Western music.”
The researchers did two sets of studies, one in 2011 and one in 2015. In each study, they asked participants to rate how much they liked dissonant and consonant chords. The researchers also performed tests to make sure that the participants could tell the difference between dissonant and consonant sounds, and found that they could.
The team performed the same tests with a group of Spanish-speaking Bolivians who lived in a small town near the Tsimane, and residents of La Paz, Bolivia’s capital. They also tested groups of American musicians and non-musicians.
The researchers found that the preference of consonant and dissonant sounds varied greatly over the five participant groups. In the Tsimane tribe it’s unnoticeable, in the two Bolivian groups, there’s a statistically significant but small preference. In the American groups there’s a much more significant preference, and it’s larger in the musicians than in the non-musicians.
When asked to rate nonmusical sounds such as laughter and gasps, the Tsimane showed similar responses to the other groups. They also showed the same dislike for a musical quality known as acoustic roughness, a complex effect which quantifies the subjective perception of rapid (15-300 Hz) amplitude modulation of a sound.
Music Has Many Health Benefits
Whether music is consonant or dissonant, it is hard to deny the benefits it has on our health. A 2006 study explored the effects of music on power, pain, depression and disability. A randomized controlled clinical trial was carried out with a sample of 60 African American and Caucasian people aged 21-65 years with chronic non-malignant pain. They were randomly assigned to a standard music group, subject-preferred music group and a control group. The music groups had more power and less pain, depression and disability than the control group, but there were no statistically significant differences between the two music intervention groups.
The results proved the long standing claim of music’s magical abilities to reduce depression and pain. Hence hospitals, clinics and other healthcare facilities can utilize the powers of music for a more comfortable, and less discomforting experience during painful medical procedures such as root canals, applying stitches and delivery etc.
No matter what kind of musical style you prefer, music is a gift and should be embraced by everyone.