In Western styles of music, from classical to pop, some combinations of notes are generally considered more pleasant than others. To most of our ears, a chord of C and G, for example, sounds much more agreeable than the grating combination of C and F# (which has historically been known as the “devil in music”).
For decades, neuroscientists have pondered whether this preference is somehow hardwired into our brains. A new study from MIT and Brandeis University suggests that the answer is no.
In a study of more than 100 people belonging to a remote Amazonian tribe with little or no exposure to Western music, the researchers found that dissonant chords such as the combination of C and F# were rated just as likeable as “consonant” chords, which feature simple integer ratios between the acoustical frequencies of the two notes.
This study suggests that preferences for consonance over dissonance depend on exposure to Western musical culture, and that the preference is not innate.
For centuries, some scientists have hypothesized that the brain is wired to respond favorably to consonant chords such as the fifth (so-called because one of the notes is five notes higher than the other). Musicians in societies dating at least as far back as the ancient Greeks noticed that in the fifth and other consonant chords, the ratio of frequencies of the two notes is usually based on integers — in the case of the fifth, a ratio of 3:2. The combination of C and G is often called “the perfect fifth.”
Others believe that these preferences are culturally determined, as a result of exposure to music featuring consonant chords. This debate has been difficult to resolve, in large part because nowadays there are very few people in the world who are not familiar with Western music and its consonant chords.
In 2010, Ricardo Godoy, an anthropologist who has been studying an Amazonian tribe known as the Tsimane for many years, asked Josh McDermott, the Frederick A. and Carole J. Middleton Assistant Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, to collaborate on a study of how the Tsimane respond to music. Most of the Tsimane, a farming and foraging society of about 12 000 people, have very limited exposure to Western music. The Tsimane’s own music features both singing and instrumental performance, but usually by only one person at a time.
When asked to rate nonmusical sounds such as laughter and gasps, the Tsimane showed similar responses to the other groups. They also showed the same dislike for a musical quality known as acoustic roughness.