Thanks to a frequent commentator for tipping me off to these articles, both discussing the same study:
The second link is to a public release by MIT, so let's look at that one first.
I think this description of the context of the study reveals how distorted the basic assumptions are. We don't even notice them because they are so endemic to intellectual pursuits in our culture. First of all, it is odd to talk about Western "styles" of music, not because they don't exist, of course they do, but the word "style" is fundamentally deceptive because what is being considered in the study is not a musical style like the backbeat in pop music or the dancelike character of rondo finales, but the bedrock of Western music theory, which goes back to the ancient Greeks who were the first to notice the simple relationships of the octave and fifth (the relation between the frequencies of the pitches are, respectively, 2:1 and 3:2, which is an acoustical fact, not a cultural preference). So right off the bat, the fundamental assumptions of the study are loony.CAMBRIDGE, MA -- In Western styles of music, from classical to pop, some combinations of notes are generally considered more pleasant than others. To most of our ears, a chord of C and G, for example, sounds much more agreeable than the grating combination of C and F# (which has historically been known as the "devil in music").For decades, neuroscientists have pondered whether this preference is somehow hardwired into our brains. A new study from MIT and Brandeis University suggests that the answer is no.
Next, I have to question the use of the word "chord". In music, a chord is typically a group of three or more notes sounding simultaneously. A group of two notes, which they are talking about here, is always referred to as an "interval" not a chord. Two notes can form an interval horizontally or vertically. Intervals are the basic building blocks of music, not a "style".
In a study of more than 100 people belonging to a remote Amazonian tribe with little or no exposure to Western music, the researchers found that dissonant chords such as the combination of C and F# were rated just as likeable as "consonant" chords, which feature simple integer ratios between the acoustical frequencies of the two notes.OK, so they played different intervals to the people in the tribe, who had never been exposed to Western music and found that they had no particular preference for consonant intervals over dissonant ones. Let's fill this in a bit. Presumably they have also had no exposure to Indian music or Japanese music or Balinese music or African music or, and this is the important bit: any developed music whatsoever! The first question I want to ask is, "what sort of music are they used to?" Log drums? Blowing across grass leaves? Are they used to hearing any pure intervals whatsoever? If not, then it is extremely doubtful that they can even have a preference.
The so-called "preference" for certain intervals is not so much an "oh, that sounds nice" as it is a characteristic of highly developed musical "languages" to use certain intervals as structural and other ones as decorative or expressive.
The Tsimane's own music features both singing and instrumental performance, but usually by only one person at a time.It would be very helpful to have some information about the kind of music the Tsimane sing and play, because it would be fundamental in shaping their preferences. For example, it is not so easy to construct musical instruments that can produce pure intervals, especially if you live in a jungle with no precision tools. If they are used to the typically complex interval clusters produced by primitive instruments, then all pure intervals, whether consonant or dissonant, are going to sound odd to them.
It is not so easy to dig up a clip of traditional music from the Amazon, but there seems to be a bit of a cottage industry in "shamanic" music from that area used as an aid in meditation. Most hilariously ironic is that the very first interval sang on this recording is ... wait for it ... a perfect fourth (the inversion of a perfect fifth--C up to G is a perfect fifth, G up to C is a perfect fourth):
For greater amusement value, let's have a look at how the Huffington Post commentator spins this study:
When did it become the norm for every article referencing aesthetic tastes to be an extended sneer? Let's sneer right back, shall we? As we have just observed, the MIT/Brandeis study really tells us almost nothing whatsoever, so all this fervent ranting is just the prejudices of the writer spewing forth. You only like what you like because you are culturally conditioned to. This is a basic plank of the cultural Marxism platform, of course and once they have you fundamentally believing it, they have you right where they want you. This goes back to the work of Pierre Bourdieu who, according to Wikipedia:Your obscure record collection is great and all but, I’m sorry to inform you, your preciously unique musical tastes are all an illusion. More precisely, they’re inextricably shaped by broader cultural norms and codes which are virtually impossible to avoid.In other words, your taste in music is dictated more by history, and not your unique melodic preferences.This news comes courtesy of researchers at MIT and Brandeis University, who at long last determined that even the most basic of musical preferences are heavily informed by a long-standing tradition of Western music that has permeated your brain, debunking the myth that our minds are hardwired to enjoy so-called consonant chords.
was primarily concerned with the dynamics of power in society, and especially the diverse and subtle ways in which power is transferred and social order maintained within and across generations. In conscious opposition to the idealist tradition of much of Western philosophy, his work often emphasized the corporeal nature of social life and stressed the role of practice and embodiment in social dynamics.He wrote a lot about the sociology of aesthetics:
Pierre Bourdieu developed theories of social stratification based on aesthetic taste in his 1979 work Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (in French, La Distinction) published by Harvard University Press. Bourdieu claims that how one chooses to present one's social space to the world — one's aesthetic dispositions — depicts one's status and distances oneself from lower groups. Specifically, Bourdieu hypothesizes that children internalize these dispositions at an early age and that such dispositions guide the young towards their appropriate social positions, towards the behaviors that are suitable for them, and foster an aversion towards other behaviours.Is this how your musical taste has been shaped? Certainly not mine! According to how music is integrated with power in our society I simply have to be a big Beyoncé fan, right? She performs at the White House and everything!
Let's have one last quote from Huffington Post:
Oh, those horrific Western value systems! Thank god we can uproot them at last! And, presumably, revert to the primitivistic ways of organizing sound typical of musical traditions that have not noticed the basic acoustic facts that Western musicians have, and passed on to Arabic, Indian and many other traditions. Here is some music from a tradition almost untouched by those ancient Greek discoveries about acoustics. This is some traditional music from Thailand but you might notice that the lead player is still often playing the melody in octaves:The study uproots the belief that there is something intrinsic or natural about the Western value systems that govern music. In fact, it’s just a very, very widespread opinion, not to mention another example of Westerners thinking they know best.“There’s often a tendency to assume that structures that are important in Western music are just important, period,” McDermott explained to The Boston Globe. “Our results provide a pretty strong cautionary note of one example where that is pretty clearly not the case.”