Blame your ‘environment’ for your taste in music

Study finds that society shapes our listening preferences

Bieber fans

The music we’re exposed to when we’re young shapes our musical preferences.


Does Justin Bieber’s music make you cringe — or are you a Belieber? Perhaps you prefer Taylor Swift? Or hip hop? What about salsa? Or show tunes? If you’re teased about your musical taste, you can blame your upbringing. A new study finds that the music people prefer reflects what they heard growing up.

Scientists long have wondered whether we are born with our musical tastes. It’s easy to think that might be the case, since music exists in every culture. But how much of our preference comes from biology and how much is shaped by the people around us has remained a mystery. One challenge: It can be difficult to find people — anywhere — who have not been exposed to Western music.

A team of researchers overcame this problem by traveling deep into the Amazon rainforest. It’s in South America. Team leader Josh McDermott is a cognitive scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Such researchers study mental activities, such as thinking and learning.

McDermott’s team worked with five groups of adults. Two of the groups live in the United States. They listen to Western music. That’s the common name for what is typically performed in North America. People in one of the two groups had each played a musical instrument for an average of 7.7 years. Those in the other group had played music for less than a year. This allowed the researchers to study whether playing an instrument changed the kinds of sounds people like to hear.

All of the other recruits live in the South American country of Bolivia. One group lives in the capital city of La Paz. They hear Western music, but probably not nearly as much as do people living in North America. Another group came from the small town of San Borja. Its residents probably hear even less Western music than do the people in La Paz.

A Bolivian man listens to experimental sounds through a set of headphones.Alan Schultz/Baylor University

The final group — the Tsimané (pronounced Chee-MAH-nay) — live in a village within the Amazon rainforest. It is so remote that outsiders can reach it only by canoe. People there have no electricity or radios. When they sing or play instruments, they do it solo. And that means their songs don’t have overlapping notes. This sets their music apart from the kinds of sounds typical in Western music.

The people in all five groups listened to recordings of chords. These are groups of notes played together and that come from regular, particular intervals within an octave. Some chords were consonant. That term refers to musical sounds that most people, at least in Western cultures, consider pleasant to hear. Others were dissonant, or clashing. These sounds are widely considered unpleasant.

As expected, U.S. residents strongly preferred consonant chords. That held true whether the chord contained two notes or three. It also did not matter if the chords were sung or created using an electronic machine known as a synthesizer. People in La Paz and San Borja also preferred consonance over dissonance. But the Tsimané liked them equally.

What’s more, how strongly people preferred consonant chords correlated with their exposure to Western music. U.S. residents who had played a musical instrument preferred consonant chords most. Those in San Borja preferred them least. And the Tsimané? They showed no preference for either.

Music preferences depended on upbringing

Exposure to particular types of music influences what we like to hear, McDermott now concludes. “The preference for consonance has often been proposed as a basic building block of human music,” he points out. “Our findings suggest that this is not the case.”

The study ignores what we know about the biology of music, says Dale Purves. This neuroscientist at Duke University in Durham, N.C., was not involved in the study. “The problem is misunderstanding nature versus nurture,” he says. By that he is distinguishing between traits we and other animals inherit (nature) versus those that are learned over time (nurture).

Everything our brains do depends on both biology and  our environments, Purves says. And that almost certainly includes our musical tastes. “Overwhelming evidence accumulated over the centuries has shown that musical preferences and practices are strikingly similar across cultures,” he notes. Such evidence suggests, he argues, that biology — how our brains are wired — plays a major role in shaping musical preferences.

Biology probably does put limits on musical preferences, McDermott says. “For instance, you can’t prefer one thing over another if you can’t tell them apart.” And, he points out, “properties of the ear and brain may partly determine what sounds we can tell apart easily.” Still, he argues, his team’s findings suggest that preferring consonance is not due solely to biology. “Rather than guiding the evolution of music,” he says, “consonance preferences seem to be a consequence of what kind of music we are exposed to.”

Alison Pearce Stevens is a former biologist and forever science geek who writes about science and nature for kids. She lives with her husband, their two kids and a small menagerie of cuddly (and not-so cuddly) critters.

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