Musical Tastes: Nature or Nurture? | The Scientist

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Studies of remote Amazonian villages reveal how culture influences our musical preferences.


Deep in the Amazon rainforests of Bolivia live the Tsimane’, a tribe that has remained relatively untouched by Western civilization. Tsimane’ people possess a unique characteristic: they do not cringe at musical tones that sound discordant to Western ears. The vast majority of Westerners prefer consonant chords to dissonant ones, based on the intervals between the musical notes that compose the chords. One particularly notable example of this is the Devil’s Interval, or flatted fifth, which received its name in the Middle Ages because the sound it produced was deemed so unpleasant that people associated it with sinister forces. The flatted fifth later became a staple of numerous jazz, blues, and rock-and-roll songs.

Over the years, scientists have gathered compelling evidence to suggest that an aversion to dissonance is innate. In 1996, in a letter to Nature, Harvard psychologists, Marcel Zentner and Jerome Kagan, reported on a study suggesting that four-month-old infants preferred consonant intervals to dissonant ones. Researchers subsequently replicated these results: one lab discovered the same effect in two-month-olds and another in two-day-old infants of both deaf and hearing parents. Some scientists even found these preferences in certain animals, such as young chimpanzees and baby chickens.

“Of course the ambiguity is [that] even young infants have quite a bit of exposure to typical Western music,” says Josh McDermott, a researcher who studies auditory cognition at MIT. “So the counter-argument is that they get early exposure, and that shapes their preference.”

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Diana KwonComment