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Indifference to dissonance in native Amazonians reveals cultural variation in music perception

Abstract

Music is present in every culture, but the degree to which it is shaped by biology remains debated. One widely discussed phenomenon is that some combinations of notes are perceived by Westerners as pleasant, or consonant, whereas others are perceived as unpleasant, or dissonant1. The contrast between consonance and dissonance is central to Western music2,3, and its origins have fascinated scholars since the ancient Greeks4,5,6,7,8,9,10. Aesthetic responses to consonance are commonly assumed by scientists to have biological roots11,12,13,14, and thus to be universally present in humans15,16. Ethnomusicologists17 and composers8, in contrast, have argued that consonance is a creation of Western musical culture6. The issue has remained unresolved, partly because little is known about the extent of cross-cultural variation in consonance preferences18. Here we report experiments with the Tsimane’—a native Amazonian society with minimal exposure to Western culture—and comparison populations in Bolivia and the United States that varied in exposure to Western music. Participants rated the pleasantness of sounds. Despite exhibiting Western-like discrimination abilities and Western-like aesthetic responses to familiar sounds and acoustic roughness, the Tsimane’ rated consonant and dissonant chords and vocal harmonies as equally pleasant. By contrast, Bolivian city- and town-dwellers exhibited significant preferences for consonance, albeit to a lesser degree than US residents. The results indicate that consonance preferences can be absent in cultures sufficiently isolated from Western music, and are thus unlikely to reflect innate biases or exposure to harmonic natural sounds. The observed variation in preferences is presumably determined by exposure to musical harmony, suggesting that culture has a dominant role in shaping aesthetic responses to music.

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Figure 1: Location and setup of experiments.
Figure 2: Results of Study 1.
Figure 3: Results of preference experiments from Study 2.
Figure 4: Results of discrimination experiment from Study 2.

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Acknowledgements

The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of the National Science Foundation to R.A.G., a McDonnell Scholar Award to J.H.M., the TAPS Bolivia Study Team (particularly T. Huanca), C. García for assistance with Fig. 1a, E. Gibson for logistical help, N. Jacoby and M. Salinas for assistance recording and interviewing Tsimane’ musicians, S. Popham and L. Chen for data collection, and D. Boebinger and K. Woods for comments on the manuscript.

Author information

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Authors

Contributions

J.H.M., A.F.S., E.A.U. and R.A.G. designed the experiments, collected the data, and wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Josh H. McDermott.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

Reviewer Information Nature thanks S. Trehub and the anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Average ratings of individual chords from the synthetic and sung chord experiments from Study 1.

Ten chords were presented: the unison, minor second, major second, major third, perfect fourth, tritone, perfect fifth, major seventh, major triad, and augmented triad. The composite ratings plotted in Fig. 2 were averages of those for the consonant (blue) and dissonant (brown) chords. Ratings are from 23 US musicians (US-M), 25 US non-musicians (US-NM), 24 Bolivian city-dwellers (capital), 26 Bolivian town-dwellers, and 64 Tsimane’. Asterisks denote statistical significance of a repeated-measures ANOVA across all chord ratings. Data are mean and s.e.m. Source data

Extended Data Figure 2 Average ratings of individual chords and vocal harmonies from Study 2.

Rating variation for US listeners (n = 47) was largely determined by consonance and dissonance, whereas for Tsimane’ listeners (n = 50) it was largely driven by interval size (in the two-note chord experiments in which they exhibited significant variation). ‘S’ denotes a single vocal phrase in the vocal harmonies experiment, whereas ‘0’ denotes the unison condition (two concurrently presented exemplars of the same phrase at the same pitch). Data are mean and s.e.m. Source data

Extended Data Figure 3 Pleasantness ratings of vocal harmonies from Study 2, averaged across pitch intervals or across song excerpts, for US musicians and Tsimane’.

a, Ratings of song excerpts used to create harmonies (averaged across intervals). Each participant heard each excerpt twice, in each of two different randomly assigned interval conditions. The ratings of the two excerpt occurrences were averaged for each participant (47 US musicians and 50 Tsimane’). Top panels plot these mean ratings averaged across all participants. Asterisks denote statistical significance of Friedman’s non-parametric test of differences among repeated measures across song excerpts. Ratings of US listeners varied across song excerpts (χ2(25) = 40.92, P = 0.02), as did those of Tsimane’ listeners (χ2(25) = 49.01, P = 0.003), but the preferences of the two participant groups were not significantly correlated (r = −0.19, P = 0.35). Bottom panels plot the mean ratings of each excerpt averaged across the first and last halves of the participants tested. The mean song excerpt ratings of the two half-groups were significantly correlated for Tsimane’ but not for US participants, indicating that the preferences in US listeners were not reliable. b, Ratings of pitch intervals of the harmonies (averaged across song excerpts). Each participant heard each pitch interval four times, each time generated with a different song excerpt. The ratings of the four interval occurrences were averaged for each participant. Top panels (replicated from Extended Data Fig. 2) plot these mean ratings averaged across all participants. Asterisks denote statistical significance of a repeated-measures ANOVA across all chord ratings. Bottom panels plot the mean rating of each pitch interval averaged across the first and last halves of the participants tested. The mean interval ratings of the two groups were significantly correlated for US but not for Tsimane’ participants. Data are mean and s.e.m. Source data

Extended Data Figure 4 Discrimination and preference data for worst US and best Tsimane’ participant subsets from Study 2.

a, Discrimination performance for the worst US-M participants (bottom third, n = 16) and best Tsimane’ participants (top third, n = 16), selected based on performance in the onset asynchrony condition. This selection criterion produced a group of Tsimane’ listeners who achieved an average d’ of 2.0 on the mistuned condition—good performance in absolute terms, and only slightly worse than the poorly performing Western listeners. b, Pleasantness ratings for the subsets of participants from a for conventionally consonant and dissonant sung chords and vocal harmonies. This subset of Tsimane’ listeners remained indifferent to dissonance, rating consonant and dissonant sung intervals, triads, and harmonies similarly (t(15) < 1.2, P > 0.28 in all cases). By contrast, the Western subset yielded significant consonant preferences (t(15) > 2.65, P < 0.05 in all cases). These results suggest that the absence of a consonance preference cannot be explained by a lack of sensitivity to the underlying stimulus distinction—the Tsimane’ were able to distinguish harmonic from inharmonic tones despite not having a preference for one over the other. Data are mean and s.e.m. Source data

Extended Data Table 1 Summary of participant group demographics for Study 1
Extended Data Table 2 Summary of participant group demographics for Study 2

Related audio

Supplementary information

Supplementary Audio 1

Recording of a female Tsimane’ singer. (WAV 3080 kb)

Supplementary Audio 2

Recording of a male Tsimane’ singer. This file was previously incorrectly linked and was corrected on 15 July 2016. (WAV 3244 kb)

Supplementary Audio 3

An example stimulus from the solo condition in the Vocal Harmony experiment of Study 2. This file was previously incorrectly linked and was corrected on 15 July 2016. (WAV 80 kb)

Supplementary Audio 4

An example stimulus from the unison (0 semitones) condition in the Vocal Harmony experiment of Study 2. This file was previously incorrectly linked and was corrected on 15 July 2016. (WAV 99 kb)

Supplementary Audio 5

An example stimulus from the major second (2 semitones) condition in the Vocal Harmony experiment of Study 2. This interval is typically considered dissonant by Western listeners. This file was previously incorrectly linked and was corrected on 15 July 2016. (WAV 138 kb)

Supplementary Audio 6

An example stimulus from the major third (4 semitones) condition in the Vocal Harmony experiment of Study 2. This interval is typically considered consonant by Western listeners. This file was incorrectly linked and was corrected on 15 July 2016. (WAV 62 kb)

Supplementary Audio 7

An example stimulus from the perfect fourth (5 semitones) condition in the Vocal Harmony experiment of Study 2. This interval is typically considered consonant by Western listeners. This file was previously incorrectly linked and was corrected on 15 July 2016. (WAV 54 kb)

Supplementary Audio 8

An example stimulus from the tritone (6 semitones) condition in the Vocal Harmony experiment of Study 2. This interval is typically considered dissonant by Western listeners. This file was previously incorrectly linked and was corrected on 15 July 2016. (WAV 87 kb)

Supplementary Audio 9

An example stimulus from the perfect fifth (7 semitones) condition in the Vocal Harmony experiment of Study 2. This interval is typically considered consonant by Western listeners. This file was previously incorrectly linked and was corrected on 15 July 2016. (WAV 149 kb)

Supplementary Audio 10

An example stimulus from the major seventh (11 semitones) condition in the Vocal Harmony experiment of Study 2. This interval is typically considered dissonant by Western listeners. This file was previously incorrectly linked and was corrected on 15 July 2016. (WAV 117 kb)

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McDermott, J., Schultz, A., Undurraga, E. et al. Indifference to dissonance in native Amazonians reveals cultural variation in music perception. Nature 535, 547–550 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature18635

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