Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Another one bites the dust?

A Tsimane' man plays the flute (from: McDermott et al., 2016).
The music theory literature has been suggesting it for a long time: the idea that simultaneously sounding tones with frequency relationships that are low integer multiples, like 1:2 (octave) or 3:2 (a perfect fifth), are determinant of how listeners perceive consonance. It is an idea that is often related to the overtone structure of natural sounds (such as the voice or string instruments) suggesting that musical harmony is reflective or even a result of the acoustic structure that is found in natural, harmonic sounds that are surrounding us (see earlier entries).

However, a study that was published in Nature today, makes both ideas quite unlikely (McDermott et al., 2016). The authors conclude that "consonance preferences are unlikely to be innate, and that they are not driven by exposure to harmonic natural sounds such as vocalizations." Instead, consonance preferences seem to depend on exposure to particular types of music, presumably those that feature consonant harmony. In an elegantly controlled study McDermott and colleagues compared the perception of musical, speech and natural sounds in North American listeners (both musicians and non-musicians) and compared them to two groups of Bolivian listeners, of which one group rarely is in contact with Western culture, a tribe named Tsimane' (Chimane).

All 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 North American listeners. 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. It seems we can remove 'consonance perception' from our list of candidate constituent elements that might underlie the human predisposition for music, i.e. musicality (see Honing et al., 2015).

UPDATE: Related news article in Dutch. McDermott, J. H., Schultz, A. F., Undurraga, E. A., & Godoy, R. A. (2016). Indifference to dissonance in native Amazonians reveals cultural variation in music perception. Nature, 525, 7611. DOI: 10.1038/nature18635.

ResearchBlogging.orgHoning, H., ten Cate, C., Peretz, I., & Trehub, S. (2015). Without it no music: cognition, biology and evolution of musicality Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 370 (1664), 20140088-20140088 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2014.0088

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