Nature vs Nurture in musical tastes

Neuroscientists Still Don’t Know Why Music Sounds Good

YOUR TASTE IN music is weird. Maybe you just can’t stop listening to that
power ballad, or you’ve wondered about your bewildering weakness for
yodeling. And maybe, just maybe, nobody understands your all-consuming
obsession with Steely Dan, the greatest band of all time.

But even with all these differences, neuroscientists have noticed there’s
something pretty much everyone agrees on, musically: Some chords sound
good—they’re consonant—and other notes grate when they’re played at the
same time. Unraveling why that is could explain something basic about how
humans perceive the world. Maybe people are just wired that way. Or maybe,
as a paper <; argues
today in Nature, it’s a product of human culture.

Yes, this is a nature versus nurture debate. And it’s been raging for
centuries, if not millennia. Scientists trace it back to Pythagoras, who
theorized about musical intervals in the first place. Over the years, the
heavyweights of science and philosophy have chimed in—Galileo, Kepler,

Today’s scientists have their own explanations. Maybe it’s the structure of
the inner ear, or the neat ratios of frequencies in harmonious chords. Or
maybe dissonant chords sound dissonant because of something called
roughness: If you were to simultaneously play two notes right next to each
other on a piano—a C and a C-sharp, say—their sound waves would clash in a
jarring, unpleasant way.

Composers and ethnomusicologists have pushed back on those physical
explanations, though. Maybe people prefer those consonant thirds and fifths
because so much of Western music is built on them. They’re just used to it.

The thing is, most researchers haven’t studied people without experience
listening to Western music. It’s much easier to come by undergrads who grew
up on Pitbull and Taylor Swift. But Josh McDermott
<;, a cognitive scientist at MIT, managed to get
access to the Tsimane, an Amazonian society with minimal exposure to
Western culture. “If you ask Westerners, they’ll tell you they like
consonance, and dislike dissonance,” he says. But only testing Westerners
makes it hard to distinguish whether the preference is innate or cultural.

To get to the villages, McDermott had to fly to La Paz, Bolivia, take a
small plane into a town at the foot of the Andes, truck down dirt roads,
and finally canoe for several days. Then he played the Tsimane recordings
of various chords (minor seconds, major thirds, tritones) and presented a
rating scale. They found consonant chords just as enjoyable as dissonant
ones. He also tested them to see how they felt about roughness, and found
that they disliked it. For good measure, he asked them whether they
preferred recordings of laughter over gasps to see if they understood the
instructions. (They did.)

Other neuroscientists, though, think that all this talk of nature or nurture
props up a false dichotomy. “Music tastes vary even within a culture, and
part of the reason for that is difference in experience,” says Tecumseh
Fitch <;, a cognitive biologist
at the University of Vienna. “No one would ever doubt that.” You could find
a collection of death metalheads or Jimi Hendrix fans or Schoenberg
enthusiasts, he says, and they might all say they love tritones.

So culture plays a role, yes. But Fitch and other scientists point to a
raft of evidence that show that a preference for consonance is innate.
Babies, for example, stare longer at speakers playing consonant music than dissonant. (McDermott, for his part, doesn’t find that evidence convincing—those babies could’ve been exposed to Western music, he says, even in the few months they’d been alive.)

Or, even more fundamentally, animal studies! Fitch points to experiments
that show certain species of bird prefer to sing at consonant intervals, or that baby chicks were more likely to imprint on objects making consonant sounds.
And Robert Zatorre , a researcher at the Montreal Neurological Institute, notes that the neurons of macaques responded differently to dissonant chords in a column responding to the paper. “It would be hard to argue that this effect is mediated by the
monkeys’ musical culture,” he writes.

This debate isn’t getting resolved anytime soon—most of the scientists said
they weren’t swayed by McDermott’s study. But many of them also agreed that
you can have it both ways. Maybe an innate bias for consonance exists, but
that doesn’t mean every culture develops it. Instead, learning and
experience ultimately determine what preferences actually play out. Which
means no matter what, you can still blame your inexplicable love for ’70s
dad-rock on your parents—their genes and their playlists.

1) “Scientists have claimed that humans have an innate, universal preference for some chords over others—but a study of remote villagers suggests otherwise.
“Trehub says that scientists have long ignored ethnomusicologists’ descriptions of cultures that make deliberate use of dissonant intervals, like Balinese musicians who seem to intentionally “mistune” their instruments, or Croatian duettists who sing the same melody one semitone apart. “They’ve also ignored Western music history with its changing perspectives on consonance and dissonance,” she adds. “And they’ve celebrated studies that report preferences for consonant sounds in infancy, implying innateness, while ignoring studies that fail to find such preferences.””
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2)  “The film [Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words] ends with a moving piece of archival footage taken from a rehearsal session with the Ensemble Modern in Frankfurt. Sick from the prostate cancer that would kill him in 1993 at the age of 52, Zappa conducts a performance of Varèse’s “Ionisation,” the very piece he had cued up on the family phonograph in 1955. The footage makes vivid the story at the heart of Eat That Question: a brave, irreverent person who stayed the course and saw to realization a new kind of American music, built equally from the vernacular attack of rock and roll and the outer reaches of the avant-garde.

Zappa’s records have been remastered, and the MP3s are bundled with PDF booklets reproducing the often very elaborate artwork of the original vinyl releases. All of them include in their liner notes a quotation taken from Varèse: “The present-day composer refuses to die.”


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