Scientific Understanding of Consciousness
Consciousness as an Emergent Property of Thalamocortical Activity

Music Perception — Cultural Variation


Nature  535, 547–550 (28 July 2016)

Indifference to dissonance in native Amazonians reveals cultural variation in music perception

Josh H. McDermott,

Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA

Department of Anthropology, Baylor University, Waco, Texas 76798, USA

Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts 02453, USA

Center for Intercultural and Indigenous Research, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Región Metropolitana 7820436, Chile


Music is present in every culture, but the degree to which it is shaped by biology remains debated. One widely discussed phenomenon is that some combinations of notes are perceived by Westerners as pleasant, or consonant, whereas others are perceived as unpleasant, or dissonant. The contrast between consonance and dissonance is central to Western music, and its origins have fascinated scholars since the ancient Greeks. Aesthetic responses to consonance are commonly assumed by scientists to have biological roots, and thus to be universally present in humans. Ethnomusicologist and composers, in contrast, have argued that consonance is a creation of Western musical culture. The issue has remained unresolved, partly because little is known about the extent of cross-cultural variation in consonance preferences. Here we report experiments with the Tsimane’—a native Amazonian society with minimal exposure to Western culture—and comparison populations in Bolivia and the United States that varied in exposure to Western music. 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.

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