Acoustic and biological constraints shape how we hear harmony across cultures.
Sabbi Lall | McGovern Institute for Brain Research
Many forms of Western music make use of harmony, or the sound created by certain pairs of notes. A longstanding question is why some combinations of notes are perceived as pleasant while others sound jarring to the ear. Are the combinations we favor a universal phenomenon? Or are they specific to Western culture?
Through intrepid research trips to the remote Bolivian rainforest, researchers in the McDermott lab at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research have found that aspects of the perception of note combinations may be universal, even though the aesthetic evaluation of note combination as pleasant or unpleasant is culture-specific.
“Our work has suggested some universal features of perception that may shape musical behavior around the world,” says MIT associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences Josh McDermott, who is also an associate investigator at the McGovern Institute and senior author of the Nature Communications study. “But it also indicates the rich interplay with cultural influences that give rise to the experience of music.”
Questions about the universality of musical perception are difficult to answer, in part because of the challenge in finding people with little exposure to Western music. McDermott, who is also an investigator in the Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines, has found a way to address this problem. His colleagues have performed a series of studies with the participation of an Indigenous population, the Tsimane’, who live in relative isolation from Western culture and have had little exposure to Western music. Accessing the Tsimane’ villages is challenging, as they are scattered throughout the rainforest and only reachable during the dry part of the year.
“When we enter a village there is always a crowd of curious children to greet us,” says Malinda McPherson, a graduate student in the lab and lead author of the study. “Tsimane’ are friendly and welcoming, and we have visited some villages several times, so now many people recognize us.”
In a study published in 2019, McDermott’s team found evidence that the brain’s ability to detect musical octaves is not universal, but is gained through cultural experience. And in 2016 they published findings suggesting that the preference for consonance over dissonance is culture-specific. In their new study, the team decided to explore whether aspects of the perception of consonance and dissonance might nonetheless be universally present across cultures...
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