Prefer death metal to Debussy?

Do you prefer the squealing, discordant layers of improvised jazz or heavy metal to classical choral tones? Your upbringing is responsible for your choice in music, a new study suggests – and not everyone thinks an ordered arrangement of harmonies sounds better than a jarring combination of notes.

Researchers in the US travelled to an isolated Amazonian society to compare their musical preferences to those of Western individuals, and found a marked difference between the two. This means, they write in the journal Nature, that at least some musical preferences aren’t innate. 

In Western cultures, some combinations of musical notes are considered more pleasant by most people than others. This “consonance” is more harmonious than “dissonant” combinations, which can sound a bit jarring.

But does everyone think dissonant music is unpleasant? Consonance features heavily in Western music, so does that mean we learn to prefer it from our earliest years?

Josh McDermott from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and colleagues needed a population largely untouched by Western society to find out – so they turned to the Tsimane’, a tribe indigenous to lowland Bolivia. When they sing, they don’t harmonise – they tend to warble one line at a time.

McDermott and colleagues played chords and vocal harmonies to 64 Tsimane’ people and asked them to rank which they preferred. When compared to those from a US cohort (23 musicians, 25 non-musicians) the results were striking: while the US group much preferred the consonant sounds, Tsimane’ listeners rated consonant and dissonant sounds as equally pleasant.

Another group from Bolivia – city and town-dwellers – preferred the consonant sounds too, but not to the extent of the US group.

To see if there was any auditory differences, the researchers also looked at how Tsimane’ participants responded to natural sounds such as laughs and gasps and synthetic sounds of varying roughness. This time, there were no differences to the US group, showing such acoustic discrimination, such as preferring the sound of laughter to a shocked gasp, is the same across both cultures.

Still, writes Robert Zatorre from Montreal University in Canada in a News and Views article,”we do not know how well the Tsimane’ can distinguish consonant from dissonant tone combinations”. 

As a person grows, their environment can shape their auditory system. A child reared in a society without any consonant tones may not be able to process those harmonies in the same way as a child reared in Western society. Or maybe, he adds, they’re simply not attended to.

Nevertheless, he writes, the study “provides clues to how the environment interacts with the nervous system to produce all manner of complex behaviours, feelings and thoughts”.

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