There's no accounting for taste, as the old adage goes, and this is particularly true for music. Some people like The Eagles, for instance. On the other hand, there are millions of people on Earth who have not been lobotomized. It's one of history's grand mysteries.
That hasn't stopped researchers from looking into the issue, however. As Jules Suzdaltsev explains in today's DNews dispatch, we're making some progress on determining whether a universal standard for good music actually exists.
According to a recent study out of MIT and Brandeis University, the answer may be a simple "no." More on that study in a bit, but first we need some background.
For hundreds of years, Western musicologists have made a core distinction between consonant sounds and dissonant sounds. It's all about physics. Sound waves from musical notes pulse in specific patterns, and when two notes are struck at the same time, those patterns interfere with one another.
Depending on the interval between the two notes, the resulting waveforms create different sounds. Notes like C and G are notoriously friendly, and produce a repeating pattern that our brains register as harmonious. But lower that G just a half-step to F-sharp and the new waveform pattern becomes chaotic and choppy, producing a dissonant sound.
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The assumption has always been that people naturally find consonant sounds more pleasant. But are we hardwired on the cellular level to feel this way, or does it depend on the music we've been exposed to all our lives?
To answer the question, the MIT/Brandeis research team rounded up more than 100 people belonging to a remote Amazonian tribe called the Tsimane, who have had little or no exposure to Western music. They also formed four additional listening groups, made of up of Spanish-speaking Bolivians from a small town and a big city, and American musicians and non-musicians.
The researchers then played a series of consonant and dissonant chords for all the groups, and asked listeners to rate which sounds they found more pleasant. The results were significant: In the four groups of Western listeners, listeners consistently preferred consonant chords over dissonant chords.
The Tsimane listeners, however, showed no preference whatsoever for one sound over the other. "This study suggests that preferences for consonance over dissonance depend on exposure to Western musical culture, and that the preference is not innate," the researchers conclude in the official announcement.
Check out Jules' report for more details on the experiment and some interesting notes on how our brains actually process music. Or click over to this piece from Julian Huguet on sounds that can actually kill you, and yet were never technically issued forth by The Eagles.
-- Glenn McDonald
BBC: Why Not Every Tune Strikes A Chord
Wired: Human Brain Is Wired For Harmony
MIT: Why We Like The Music We Do