To get to the villages, McDermott had to fly to La Paz, Bolivia, take a small plane into a town at the foot of the Andes, truck down dirt roads, and finally canoe for several days. Then he played the Tsimane recordings of various chords (minor seconds, major thirds, tritones) and presented a rating scale. They found consonant chords just as enjoyable as dissonant ones. He also tested them to see how they felt about roughness, and found that they disliked it. For good measure, he asked them whether they preferred recordings of laughter over gasps to see if they understood the instructions. (They did.)
Other neuroscientists, though, think that all this talk of nature or nurture props up a false dichotomy. “Music tastes vary even within a culture, and part of the reason for that is difference in experience,” says Tecumseh Fitch, a cognitive biologist at the University of Vienna. “No one would ever doubt that.” You could find a collection of death metalheads or Jimi Hendrix fans or Schoenberg enthusiasts, he says, and they might all say they love tritones.
So culture plays a role, yes. But Fitch and other scientists point to a raft of evidence that show that a preference for consonance is innate. Babies, for example, stare longer at speakers playing consonant music than dissonant. (McDermott, for his part, doesn’t find that evidence convincing—those babies could’ve been exposed to Western music, he says, even in the few months they’d been alive.)
Or, even more fundamentally, animal studies! Fitch points to experiments that show certain species of bird prefer to sing at consonant intervals, or that baby chicks were more likely to imprint on objects making consonant sounds. And Robert Zatorre, a researcher at the Montreal Neurological Institute, notes that the neurons of macaques responded differently to dissonant chords in a column responding to the paper. “It would be hard to argue that this effect is mediated by the monkeys’ musical culture,” he writes.
This debate isn’t getting resolved anytime soon—most of the scientists said they weren’t swayed by McDermott’s study. But many of them also agreed that you can have it both ways. Maybe an innate bias for consonance exists, but that doesn’t mean every culture develops it. Instead, learning and experience ultimately determine what preferences actually play out. Which means no matter what, you can still blame your inexplicable love for ’70s dad-rock on your parents—their genes and their playlists.