Our musical tastes might be shaped by our culture, scientists say

Photo: Scott Gries/Getty Images

Almost everyone has “their song,” the song that you listen to whenever you get the chance. Sometimes, you and your friends will even share that song, because we generally have similar tastes to the people we hang out with.

But, according to a new study released yesterday in the journal Nature, musical preferences seem to be shaped by a person’s cultural upbringing and experiences.

In western cultures, people tend to prefer certain note combinations, or consonant chords, such as the C and G chords. They also tend to dislike clashing — or dissonant — sounds, like the C and F# chords.

The results were different, though, when the researchers sampled a group of 100 Tsimane people from the Amazon region. The Tsimane — mostly farmers and foragers — had very little exposure to western culture.

After playing different types of music, the researchers found that the Tsimane had little preference for consonant or dissonant chords.

Scientists think that this means that our musical preferences are not so much hard-wired into our brains or innate, but rather are formed over time as a result of exposure. In other words, we tend to like the sounds that we have grown up with. Culture, not biology, determines at least some of our musical taste.

For centuries, some have argued that our preferences for consonant musical chords were based on integers, in certain ratios. This would imply that people all over the planet would prefer the same sounds in music. However,other researchers had theorised that our preferences were shaped by exposure, but it was very difficult to test the theory, since western music is so widely dispersed all around the world. It was quite difficult to find a population that hadn’t been exposed to our music to produce an unbiased sample.

But the people of the Amazon were the perfect group, and finally gave scientists some insight as to what shapes our musical preferences.

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