Our Taste in Music Is More Nurture Than Nature
Love or hate Bjork? Bach? Study refutes idea that preferences are hardwired
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 15, 2016 5:35 PM CDT
Bjork performs in Shanghai.   (AP Photo, file)

(Newser) – There's no accounting for taste—but if you want to blame anything on how you were raised, your taste in music could rank up there, a new study suggests. In music, chords can be broken down into many categories, two of which are called "consonant" and "dissonant." A consonant chord consists of two or more notes spaced certain degrees apart—the first and fifth notes of a scale, for instance, are so pleasing to many Westerners that the interval is called "perfect." A dissonant chord, on the other hand—drop that fifth note down a half step, say—produces what some describe as nails on a chalkboard, or dark, or even the "devil's music," explain scientists at Brandeis University. But now those researchers report in the journal Nature that these preferences do not appear to be hardwired from birth, and that people develop preferences for whatever music they are most exposed to growing up.

To test this, they traveled to the Tsimane tribe in remote Bolivia. To establish a base point, they also surveyed US undergrads, Bolivians in the capital city of La Paz, and Bolivians in the rural town San Borja, all of whom had exposure to Western music. Turns out the Tsimane were the only ones to express no preference for consonant or dissonant music—likely because their music consists only of one person singing at a time. So any harmony, consonant or dissonant, was new to them. "Your brain basically gets tuned to the environment around it," one researcher tells Nature News. Another researcher writes in an opinion piece in Nature that the hypothesis "provides food for thought," but that it doesn't necessarily rule out innate preferences. So if you like, say, Bjork, whose songs can be quite textured in dissonance, it's possible you were born that way, but it could come down to whatever music your parents played. (Check out which US cities will get you the most music exposure.)