Musical preferences can be a polarizing. Some people like the Beatles while others are die-hard Led Zeppelin fans. Who’s to say what’s more pleasing, catchy or rhythmic?
A new study conducted by ethnomusicologists believe they’ve pinned down the answer. When it comes to music taste and preference, they argue that it isn’t a matter of biology or our natural makeup…it’s a cocktail of learned factors, like upbringing, exposure and social circles. This study isn’t without its skeptics and musical rivals. Let’s break down and settle this debate, once and for all.
The Nature Versus Nurture Debate
The nature versus nurture debate is never-ending – and the musical realm is no exception. With music present in every culture, the degree to which it is biological remains to be a highly contested issue.
Scientists are equally adamant in each camp, arguing that musical preferences of consonance and dissonance are either innately biological, or socially learned.
Those arguing that they are biologically bound hold that the mathematics of consonant intervals and rhythmic pattern regularities are naturally appealing to humans.
On a biological basis, they argue, pitches that people are naturally drawn to have specific interval ratios and to them, this proves that cultural shaped musical preferences are impossible. According to the “nature” camp, innate music preferences are a universal phenomenon.
Conversely, composers and experts of musical culture, known as ethnomusicologists, believe that consonance is a construct of Western music cultures. In other words, people’s preferences are based in familiarity and cultural exposure.
According to these experts, all humans are born with similar brains and nervous systems, but these are flexible – similar to that of a person’s learned speech. According to the “nurture” camp, if a person’s upbringing shapes their preferences, then musical taste is not a universal phenomenon.
Amazonian Study: Culturally Rooted Musical Preferences
According to a study conducted by the Department of Brain and Cognitive Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), observed variations in preferences suggest that “culture has a dominant role in shaping aesthetic responses to music.”
The study of musical preferences and “sound pleasantness” was calculated between a Native Amazonian society with little to no exposure to Western culture, the Tsimane’, as compared to populations in Bolivia and the United States.
Western culture’s music, ranging from classical to pop, are identified as “consonant” compared to their unpleasant rivals, “dissonant.” These are often comprised of pleasant note combinations, like C and G, dating back as back as 800 B.C. in Ancient Greece and great composers of the 18th century, like Beethoven. Known as “the perfect fifth,” combining C and G is seen, or rather heard, as the perfect audible ratio.
The Tsimane’ rated consonant and dissonant chords and vocal harmonies as equally pleasant, proving that “consonance preferences can be absent in cultures sufficiently isolated from Western music,” and therefore are, “unlikely to reflect innate biases or exposure to harmonic natural sounds.” Evidently, people who live in cultures where Western music is not popularly present, there is little to no preference for consonance.
Evidently, your brain gets tuned to the environment around it.