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Culture, not biology, decides the difference between music and noise

One man’s music really is another man’s noise, based on a new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The researchers found that only cultures previously exposed to Western music formed opinions on consonance and dissonance–an element of music theory that establishes consonant chords as more aurally pleasing than dissonant chords. The findings, published today in Nature, may end longstanding arguments over whether or not musical preference is biological.


“This has been debated for a very long time–we’re talking centuries,” said study author Josh McDermott, an MIT cognitive neuroscientist who is focused on how the brain hears and understands music. “So many scientists argue biological reasons for consonance, but the music community believes it’s a cultural invention.”

To settle this dispute, McDermott travelled to the Amazonian rainforest to find the Tsimane tribe, a native Bolivian population with little to no exposure to Western music. McDermott played tribe members several consonant and dissonant vocal and instrumental chords and asked them which one they found most pleasurable. He compared their responses to Bolivian residents in the capital city of La Paz who had ample access to Western music, rural residents in San Borjas with limited access to Western music as well as a group of American musicians and non-musicians.

While the Bolivian and American populations preferred consonant over dissonant intervals, the Tsimane judged dissonant chords as pleasurable as consonant chords.

The tritone is composed of the first and fourth notes of a major scale, with the latter being sharp. Rarely used in western music, it’s considered one of the most dissonant tones. The Tsimane tribe rated this tone as pleasurable, while western listeners rejected it outright.

“Consonance seems like such a simple phenomenon, and in Western music there’s strong supposition that it’s biological,” McDermott said. “But this study suggests culture is more important than many people acknowledge.”

Delving deeper, McDermott took the Tsimane tribe’s own music, which evolved outside of Western influence, and tweaked it to include dissonant and consonant tones. Again, the tribe showed no preference.

“The Tsimane do prefer pleasant vocalizations, such as laughter, to unpleasant gasps,” Robert Zatorre, a neurologist who has also studied the Tsimane tribe, wrote in an accompanying op-ed. “They understood what was being asked of them.”

The major triad, comprised of the first, third and fifth notes of a major scale, is the most popular chord in western music. The Tsimane, unfamiliar with harmonic composition, did not recognize this chord as more viable than its dissonant counterparts.

The reason, McDermott found, are these harmonies. The Tsimane tribe doesn’t play music in groups, and thus, does not create multi-tonal harmonies. This habit allowed their ear to develop without the predilection for consonance, which is so well-established in western music listeners.

While ethnomusicologists and musicians have long argued consonance is culturally socialized, this is the first study to actively apply this theory to a culture ignorant to Western music theory.

“In order to truly understand how other cultures hear music, we have to examine them,” McDermott said. “It’s hard, but we just have to get out there.”