Some people like to listen to the Beatles, while others prefer Gregorian chants. When it comes to music, scientists find that nurture can trump nature.

Musical preferences seem to be mainly shaped by a person’s cultural upbringing and experiences rather than biological factors, according to a study published on July 13 in Nature.

“Our results show that there is a profound cultural difference” in the way people respond to consonant and dissonant sounds, says Josh McDermott, a cognitive scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and lead author of the paper. This suggests that other cultures hear the world differently, he adds.

The study is one of the first to put an age-old argument to the test. Some scientists believe that the way people respond to music has a biological basis, because pitches that people often like have particular interval ratios. They argue that this would trump any cultural shaping of musical preferences, effectively making them a universal phenomenon.

Ethnomusicologists and music composers, by contrast, think that such preferences are more a product of one’s culture. If a person’s upbringing shapes their preferences, then they are not a universal phenomenon.

Tuned experiments

The trick to working out where musical preferences come from was to find and test people who hadn’t had much contact with Western music. McDermott and his team travelled by aeroplane, car and canoe to reach the remote villages of the Tsimane’ people (pronounced ‘chee-MAH-ney’), an indigenous society in Bolivia’s Amazon basin at the foot of the Andes. Not only are the Tsimane’ largely isolated from Western culture, but their music is also unusual in that they play or sing only one line at a time, rather than harmonies.

In their experiments, McDermott and his colleagues investigated aesthetic responses to music by playing combinations of notes to three groups of people: the Tsimane’ and two other groups of Bolivians that had experienced increasing levels of exposure to Western music. The researchers recorded whether each group perceived the notes as pleasant or unpleasant to hear. They tested consonant chords, which are common in Western and many other musical cultures, as well as dissonant ones. (In ‘do re mi fa so la ti do’, for instance, the ‘dos’ are exactly an octave apart and are an example of consonant notes.)

The Tsimane’ are just as good at making acoustic distinctions as the groups with more experience of other types of music, the scientists find. Most people prefer consonant tones, but the Tsimane’ have no preference between them. “This pretty convincingly rules out that the preferences are things we’re born with,” McDermott argues.

“Culture plays a role. We like the music we grew up with,” agrees Dale Purves, a neurobiologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “Nature versus nurture is always a fool's errand.” It's almost always a combination, he adds.

Robert Zatorre, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, also expresses scepticism that cultural influences are dominant in musical preferences. For example, macaque monkeys lack a musical culture, but nonetheless have neurons in the auditory part of their brains that respond in a different way to different tone intervals. Zatorre has written a News & Views article that accompanies the paper.

But he adds that cultural experiences are still important in shaping how a person perceives sounds. All humans are born with similar brains and nervous systems, but these are flexible. The development of speech parallels that of music in a person's upbringing. Infants start out having the ability to discriminate between the sounds used in any language, but this fades over time as they specialize in their native tongue. Japanese people lose the ability to distinguish between ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds, for instance.

“Your brain basically gets tuned to the environment around it,” Zatorre says.

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on July 13, 2016.