Bach or Beyonce? MIT study uncovers what shapes our taste in music

Musical tastes are very subjective – and mainly influenced by our cultural upbringing, says a study by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

According to a recent study published in Nature, the musical concepts of “consonant” (pleasant) and “dissonant” (unpleasant) sounds only exist in certain cultures.

For example, playing the notes C and G is thought to produce a “consonant” sound, while the combination of notes F and B is considered “dissonant” – but only in Western cultures, it seems.

Scientists have long debated over what shapes an individual’s musical preferences, with some arguing that distinguishing between consonance and dissonance is a biological, and therefore, universal trait.

The study, led by MIT associate professor Josh McDermott, set out to learn if this was so by observing five groups of people from various locations with different levels of exposure to Western music.

The first group consisted of members from the Tsimane’, a remote Amazonian population of around 12,000 people, who mainly farm and forage for sustenance. Exposure to Western culture and music is limited in this group.

Two groups were selected from Bolivia, namely a group of Spanish-speaking people from a town near the Tsimane’, and another living in La Paz, the Bolivian capital.

Another two groups were based in the United States and were made up of those who identify themselves as musicians and those who are non-musicians.

The researchers noted that the Tsimane’ were of particular interest to them because “harmony, polyphony, and group performances are by all accounts absent from their music”.

Researchers first asked participants to listen to non-musical sounds such as laughter and gasps, as well as synthetic tones with varying degrees in roughness, in order to ensure that they are able to tell the difference between consonant and dissonant sounds.

The Tsimane’ responded to the first round of tests with similar results as the other groups.

The study’s most striking conclusion was that the Tsimane’ do not show a preference for consonance when it comes to music, and in fact, rated both consonant and dissonant chords as equally pleasant.

However, those in the other groups did exhibit a general preference for consonant sounds, particularly the Bolivians who live in larger cities and Americans who are musicians.

What this reveals is that those who do not have much exposure to Western music tend to not have a noted preference for consonance, as opposed to those who have grown up around Western cultures, therefore suggesting that the music we find “good” or “bad” is likely to be formed by nurture rather than nature.

What the study did not answer, though, is why in a single family, there can be one huge One Direction fangirl, while their sibling can’t stand listening to even one song from them.

Image via Associated Press.

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