Sorry, But Your Refined Taste In Music Probably Isn't That Unique

A new study says music taste is shaped more by broader cultural norms and codes than our own specific melodic preferences.
Damien Simonis via Getty Images

Your obscure record collection is great and all but, I’m sorry to inform you, your preciously unique musical tastes are all an illusion. More precisely, they’re inextricably shaped by broader cultural norms and codes which are virtually impossible to avoid.

In other words, your taste in music is dictated more by history, and not your unique melodic preferences.

This news comes courtesy of researchers at MIT and Brandeis University, who at long last determined that even the most basic of musical preferences are heavily informed by a long-standing tradition of Western music that has permeated your brain, debunking the myth that our minds are hardwired to enjoy so-called consonant chords.

The contrast between consonance (the agreement of sounds) and dissonance (disharmonious music) has long been at the heart of Western music, whether we’re talking Beethoven or Beyoncé. Consonant tones like B and F# have been deemed melodious, agreeable, and catchy, with dissonant tones like D# and E unstable, melancholic, and jarring. In particular, when played in unison, the notes C and F# seem to yield an unsettling dissonance, a jarring tone that begs to be resolved with a rounder, more stable note combo.

Ideas of consonance and dissonance have governed musical composition since the days of the Ancient Greeks. Even Western musicians of the Middle Ages referred to such dissonant chords as dangerous intervals or diabolus in musica ― the devil in music. Intentionally “difficult” music today draws upon the same basic understandings of the ear’s inclinations.

Neuroscientists, however, have long wondered if this binary understanding of certain sounds being pleasing or not is something wired into our brains. Is there something inherently beautiful about the sound of a perfect octave that everyone, regardless of their backgrounds and respective customs, can enjoy?

Well, the new study from MIT and Brandeis attempted to find out, by testing if 100 individuals from a remote Amazonian tribe called Tsimane, with little or no exposure to Western music, possessed natural inclinations toward more musical sounds we might consider conventionally pleasant.

The Tsimane are a forager-horticulturalist group based in Bolivia’s lowland forests. They make a living mainly through rotational farming, hunting, fishing and gathering, and have no access to running water or electricity. Although members of the tribe occasionally sing or make music one person at a time, they’ve had no contact with Western music’s long legacy.

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,” Josh McDermott, the Frederick A. and Carole J. Middleton assistant professor of neuroscience in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, explained in a statement. “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.”

McDermott worked with Brandeis professor Ricardo Godoy to determine how the Tsimane tribe responded to various musical combinations. They conducted two studies, in 2011 and 2015, each time asking participants to rate how much they liked a variety of chords, both consonant and dissonant. The group as a whole did not express a preference for consonant chords over dissonant chords, meaning what many long thought was a universal truth about music is just a long held Western tradition.

McDermott and Godoy compared these findings with results from identical tests with other variable groups, Bolivians who live in a small town near the Tsimane, residents of the Bolivian capital, La Paz, American musicians and American non-musicians.

“What we found is the preference for consonance over dissonance varies dramatically across those five groups,” McDermott said. “In the Tsimane it’s undetectable, and in the two groups in Bolivia, there’s a statistically significant but small preference. In the American groups it’s quite a bit larger, and it’s bigger in the musicians than in the non-musicians.”

The study uproots the belief that there is something intrinsic or natural about the Western value systems that govern music. In fact, it’s just a very, very widespread opinion, not to mention another example of Westerners thinking they know best.

There’s often a tendency to assume that structures that are important in Western music are just important, period,” McDermott explained to The Boston Globe. “Our results provide a pretty strong cautionary note of one example where that is pretty clearly not the case.”

The researchers postulate that in the future, the strict binary relationship between consonance and dissonance may no longer exist. We find consonant sounds nice now, but in a couple millennia, who knows?

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