Why Do We Like the Music That We Like?

By Bryan Menegus on at

Some combinations of notes inherently sound better than others, right? It’s why the bread and butter of pop music, which is engineered to be upbeat and danceable, is highly consonant major chords. It’s why unpredictable 12-tone compositions create unease in the listener, and why Stravinsky’s dissonant Rite of Spring sparked a riot when it debuted.

A new study from MIT and Brandeis University shows that’s not at all true. Our preference towards — or distaste for, as the case may be — certain musical intervals stems from being steeped from an early age in the rules of western music.

To get to the bottom of the issue, the only option was to go to one of the few places in the world where humans have almost no exposure to western compositions: the Amazon Rainforest. MIT assistant professor Josh McDermott and Brandies professor Ricardo Godoy performed a variety of experiments on members of the Tsimane tribe to see if they had any sort of preference for consonant chords over dissonant ones. They performed the same tests on people nearby who were not part of the Tsimane, residents in La Paz, and American musicians and non-musicians.

Preference towards more consonant intervals varied widely between the five groups. “In the Tsimane it’s undetectable, and in the two groups in Bolivia, there’s a statistically significant but small preference,” McDermott told MIT News. “In the American groups it’s quite a bit larger, and it’s bigger in the musicians than in the nonmusicians.” It’s not as though the Tsimane are unfamiliar with musical concepts: they were able to distinguish between consonant and dissonant chords. The music they make generally involves only one instrument or voice playing at a time, and presumably had no preconceptions as to which type of interval sounded “better”.

So there you go: everything you think and feel about the construction of music is cultural dogma. And not surprisingly you’ll find yourself more attuned to it if you’re a working musician or had music lessons at some point in your life. So far there haven’t been any studies I could find about unlearning western musical bias. [Nature via MIT News]