We’re probably not hardwired to hate ‘devil’s music’

(Credit: iStockphoto)

One of the central distinctions in Western music is between consonance and dissonance. The prevailing idea is that humans may be hardwired to like consonance in music.

Which do you prefer?

Sample A: consonant chord

Sample B: archetypical dissonant chord (the notes C and F# together)

Since the ancient Greeks, most Westerners have found the consonance of Sample A more pleasing than dissonance of Sample B.

Consonant chords predominate in the music of Mozart and Taylor Swift. Dissonant chords—known as “devil’s music” because of the dark overtones—show up in the works of Igor Stravinsky and Black Sabbath.

A new study in Nature by Brandeis University researchers Ricardo Godoy and Eduardo Undurraga (now at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) suggests culture plays a larger role than biology in explaining musical preference.

Which sounds do the Tsimane prefer?

For the last twenty years, Godoy, a professor of international development at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, has studied the Tsimane, an indigenous society in the Amazonian rainforest in Bolivia.

The Tsimane (pronounced chee-MAH-ney) have limited exposure to Western culture, including Western music. Where they live can only be reached by canoe.

The researchers played an hour’s worth of dissonant and consonant musical sounds for over 100 Tsimane study participants. The Tsimane found both equally pleasing.

To establish a baseline, the researchers played the same music for three other groups—undergraduates in the United States, Bolivians living in the capital city of La Paz, and Bolivians living in the rural town of San Borja. They’d all had at least some exposure to Western music.

They all preferred consonance to dissonance.

Tsimane music consists of songs performed by one individual at gatherings of adults to drink “chicha,” the local alcoholic beverage. In recent history, there is no tradition of group performance.

Samples of Tsimane music

“They are unlikely to have much exposure to consonant or dissonant chords,” says Josh McDermott of MIT, who was the lead author on the study. “This suggests that a preference for one over the other emerges from exposure to musical harmony.”

Alan Schultz of Baylor University also contributed.

Source: Brandeis University