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Scientists say music is more like a cultural cuisine than a universal language

Reuters/Darren Staples
Pleasant or no?
  • Amy X. Wang
By Amy X. Wang


Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Don’t bother with heated, punch-pulling arguments over music anymore. Science says there just isn’t a point.

According to a new study published this week in Nature, a person’s musical preferences are shaped largely by the culture in which he or she is raised, and much less by biological factors or conscious decisions. Researchers from MIT and other institutions played certain sounds for members of the Tsimane’—an Amazonian tribe with hardly any exposure to Western music—and compared their responses with those of Bolivians and Americans.

While Westerners found consonant chords far more pleasing than dissonant tones (below is a quick clip demonstrating the difference between the two), the Tsimane’ tribe, which doesn’t use either type of sound in its own culture, found the two equally pleasant. Such a reaction suggests a person’s cultural background has a huge effect on taste.

In short: Auditory tastes aren’t innate, and there’s really no such thing as universally ”good” music.

The finding reveals a lot about why we like the music we do. But the fact that people raised within the same cultural context (or even the same family) sometimes have radically different preferences indicates that a listener’s upbringing isn’t the only factor at hand. Still, the study dethrones the previous claim in cognitive science that humans naturally prefer harmonious sounds. Seems it’s scientifically impossible to nail down the “perfect” song.

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