Culture decides the difference between music and noise

Photo by Josh McDermott

Photo by Josh McDermott

IDEA: Music is present in every culture, but the degree to which it is shaped by biology remains debated. What makes that we perceive some sounds as music and some sounds as noise?

WHAT: Indifference to dissonance in native Amazonians reveals cultural variation in music perception. Based on a new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, only cultures previously exposed to Western music formed opinions on consonance and dissonance–an element of music theory that establishes consonant chords as more aurally pleasing than dissonant chords. The findings, published in Nature last week, may end longstanding arguments over whether or not musical preference is biological.

Josh McDermott in an earlier MIT study about music in the brain. For the first time, scientists identify a neural population highly selective for music.

This has been debated for a very long time–we’re talking centuries, so many scientists argue biological reasons for consonance, but the music community believes it’s a cultural invention.
— Josh McDermott, MIT cognitive neuroscientist.

To settle this dispute, McDermott travelled to the Amazonian rainforest to find the Tsimane tribe, a native Bolivian population with little to no exposure to Western music. McDermott played tribe members several consonant and dissonant vocal and instrumental chords and asked them which one they found most pleasurable.

WHERE: Download the Nature app or subscribe to Nature Journal.

BY: Josh H. McDermott