Brahms or Beyonce? All cultures enjoy music, but tastes vary. Are the variations cultural or biological? What is it that makes some combinations of notes pleasant and others less so? New research, published in Nature, suggests that preference depends on nurture, not nature.

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When it comes to music, we like what we know.

Pleasant combinations in Western music, whether classical or pop, are known as “consonant,” while unpleasant ones are called “dissonant.”

In Western culture, a combination of C and G, for example, is considered more pleasant than F and B. An editorial published in Nature notes that this combination, nicknamed the “devil in music,” was once considered so obnoxious that religious authorities banned it.

The contrast between consonance and dissonance has been key to Western musical composition as far back as Ancient Greece. The works of great composers, such as Beethoven, depend on tension between the two.

Experts have long debated what creates people’s musical preferences.

Scientists have argued that perceptions of consonance and dissonance are biological and therefore innate, which means everyone has them. The mathematics of consonant intervals and the underlying regularities of musical sound make them appealing to humans.

Composers and experts in musical culture, on the other hand, believe that preferences for consonant sounds are specifically created by Western music culture. People like the sounds that are familiar.

In the current study, a team led by Josh McDermott, an assistant professor of neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, MA, and Ricardo Godoy, a professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA, carried out two studies, one in 2011 and one in 2015.

They compared the reactions of five groups of people toward consonant and dissonant notes.

One group was the Tsimane’, a remote Amazonian population of around 12,000 people, who live by farming and foraging. Exposure to Western culture and music is limited in this group, especially among those who live farthest from towns and urban centers. Over 100 people from the Tsimane’ participated in the study.

Tsimane’ music involves singing and instruments, but not harmonies. Normally only one person or line plays at a time.

The researchers compared their findings for the Tsimane’ with those of four other groups with varied exposure to Western music.

From Bolivia, they chose a group of Spanish-speaking people from a town near the Tsimane’, and another group living in La Paz, the Bolivian capital. From the United States, there were two groups, one consisting of musicians and the other, nonmusicians.

An initial test ensured that participants could distinguish between consonant and dissonant sounds. It assessed their responses to nonmusical sounds such as laughter and gasps, as well as a musical quality known as acoustic roughness, for example “white noise.”

The Tsimane’ response to these sounds was similar to that of the other groups.

Next, the participants rated the pleasantness of consonant and dissonant chords and vocal harmonies.

The Tsimane’ rated these sounds as equally pleasant. In contrast, the Bolivians from towns and cities had a general preference for consonance, and the U.S. residents much preferred consonance. Among the American participants, musicians were more likely to prefer consonance than nonmusicians.

The findings indicate that people who live in cultures where Western music is not generally present do not have a preference for consonance. This suggests that the preference for consonance and harmonic natural sound is not innate.

Instead, it seems likely that culture shapes musical taste.

What we found is the preference for consonance over dissonance varies dramatically across those five groups. 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 nonmusicians.”

Josh McDermott, MIT

One difficulty in gathering such evidence is that very few people in today’s world are unfamiliar with Western music. Since Western music has a lot of consonant chords, it is difficult to know whether people like these sounds because they are familiar, or because there is a natural tendency to like them.

What makes a consonant chord? Western musicians note that in consonant chords, the ratio of frequencies of the two notes is usually based on whole numbers. The fifth chord, which combines C and G, has a ratio of 3:2. This is often called “the perfect fifth.”

Commenting on the findings, Dale Purves, a neurobiologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina says that in most aspects of life, a combination of nature and nurture is at play.