• Turns out biology has an explanation for why a boy band's five-part harmony isn't everyone's cup of tea. (CBS)Source: CBS
The music you like has everything to do with your biology.
Andy Coghlan

New Scientist
19 Jul 2016 - 1:41 PM  UPDATED 22 Jul 2016 - 12:23 PM

There’s no such thing as a nasty-sounding chord: it all depends on what you’re used to. That’s the suggestion from a study of more than 160 people from the US and Bolivia, which found that people may have no innate preference for particular chords or harmonies.

Some think that certain elements of music transcend culture and are universal. The ancient Greeks discovered that musical harmony seems rooted in mathematics, while many cultures worldwide base their musical scales around the octave and use mathematically neat chords like the perfect fifth.

But Josh McDermott at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his team have found evidence that our biology does not innately prefer such mathematically simple harmonies.

They uncovered this by focusing on the difference between two types of harmony. Consonance describes combinations of notes with frequencies that have a simple ratio, such as 2:3 for the notes C and G – a perfect fifth. But dissonant combinations have a more complex ratio – 5:7 in the case of C and F#, for example – and sound much harsher and jarring to Western ears.

The team played note combinations that were either consonant or dissonant to volunteers from the US and Bolivia, and asked them to rate how pleasant each chord was on a scale of 1 to 4. Around half the US volunteers were musicians, while some of the participants from Bolivia belonged to the Tsimane, a native Amazonian society that has had little exposure to Western music.

As expected, people from the US rated consonant note combinations as being more pleasant than dissonant chords. In particular, those who were trained musicians found consonant chords on average twice as pleasing. Residents from towns or cities in Bolivia showed less of a preference for consonance, and Tsimane volunteers did not prefer consonance at all.


Music to the ears

“We found the preference for consonance over dissonance varied roughly in line with the degree of exposure to Western music,” says McDermott.

Traditional Tsimane music is predominantly sung by a lone singer, so Tsimane people may not often hear two notes played or sung together at the same time. “We believe they haven’t had much exposure to consonant and dissonant combinations of notes,” says McDermott.

This suggests that cultural experiences shape what music sounds pleasant to us, rather than innate biological properties of how we perceive and process sound.

Others disagree, however. “It’s good work, but I don’t find their claim against a role for biology in shaping appreciation of tonal beauty in music at all compelling,” says Dan Bowling at the University of Vienna, Austria. He suggests there could still be an instinctive attraction towards particular tones, and that when people are used to hearing chords, they prefer consonant ones.

“It’s misleading to imply an opposition between culture and biology,” says Bill Thompson at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. “Everything about learning is biological.” Although Thompson accepts that culture does seem to be important in shaping harmony preferences, he says other aspects of music taste may not be influenced in the same way.

Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature18635

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This article was originally published in New Scientist© All Rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.