Letter | Published:

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

Nature volume 535, pages 547550 (28 July 2016) | Download Citation

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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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

Affiliations

  1. Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA

    • Josh H. McDermott
  2. Department of Anthropology, Baylor University, Waco, Texas 76798, USA

    • Alan F. Schultz
  3. Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts 02453, USA

    • Eduardo A. Undurraga
    •  & Ricardo A. Godoy
  4. Center for Intercultural and Indigenous Research, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Región Metropolitana 7820436, Chile

    • Eduardo A. Undurraga

Authors

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Contributions

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

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Josh H. McDermott.

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

Extended data

Supplementary information

Audio files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Audio 1

    Recording of a female Tsimane’ singer.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Audio 2

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

  3. 3.

    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.

  4. 4.

    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.

  5. 5.

    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.

  6. 6.

    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.

  7. 7.

    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.

  8. 8.

    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.

  9. 9.

    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.

  10. 10.

    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.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature18635

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