Musical tastes are cultural in origin, not hardwired in the brain

Discussion in 'Art & Culture' started by Plazma Inferno!, Jul 14, 2016.

  1. Plazma Inferno! Ding Ding Ding Ding Administrator

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    For centuries, some scientists have hypothesized that the brain is wired to respond favorably to consonant chords such as the fifth (so-called because one of the notes is five notes higher than the other). Musicians in societies dating at least as far back as the ancient Greeks noticed that in the fifth and other consonant chords, the ratio of frequencies of the two notes is usually based on integers -- in the case of the fifth, a ratio of 3:2. The combination of C and G is often called "the perfect fifth."
    Others believe that these preferences are culturally determined, as a result of exposure to music featuring consonant chords. This debate has been difficult to resolve, in large part because nowadays there are very few people in the world who are not familiar with Western music and its consonant chords.
    But, new research suggests that musical tastes are cultural, not hardwired in the brain.
    In a study of more than 100 people belonging to a remote Amazonian tribe with little or no exposure to Western music, the researchers found that dissonant chords such as the combination of C and F# were rated just as likeable as "consonant" chords, which feature simple integer ratios between the acoustical frequencies of the two notes.
    This study suggests that preferences for consonance over dissonance depend on exposure to Western musical culture, and that the preference is not innate.

    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160713143021.htm
     
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  3. C C Consular Corps - "the backbone of diplomacy" Valued Senior Member

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    So they don't even encounter the dissonance of two singers failing to match the same pitch or note of a melody, or would not care about that clash if they did? IOW, if the Tsimane aren't familiar with polyphony or certain traits of it to begin with, then it's kind of like asking an Anglophone to judge how s/he feels about a nonsense arrangement of spoken words in Mandarin compared to how s/he feels about a sensible arrangement of spoken words in Mandarin. Which is to say, both would initially lack significance or sound like gibberish. After extensive exposure, however, repeated patterns might be discerned in the latter that are missing in the arbitrary former (recognition of there being syntactic structure despite not knowing what the language units semantically signify).

    Arguably, the very capacity to identify dissonance would be a brain's innate cognitive favoring of consonance (otherwise, why bother to disentangle the two if the whole acoustic landscape is uniformly pleasing?). Though not necessarily a rejection of dissonance being constructively useful or enhancing the value of consonance by breaking its monotony (still valued as lumber for building purposes). So tribal members should be exposed to varying (musical) intervals like C-G and C-F# until they become familiar enough with such combinations to distinguish on their own between the intervals' quantitative relationships (as qualitative evaluations). If in the course of prolonged exposure they still never become aware of some intervals being more harmonious than others, then musical tastes can be chalked up to being entirely acquired (belief in basic elements of music that are universal to humans being tossed out the window).
     
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  5. exchemist Valued Senior Member

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    This is one post of yours that I think I can understand.

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    I agree. Consonance and dissonance are only really apparent when two tones are heard simultaneously, i.e. chords are played. If someone's musical tradition has no chords, i.e. only a single line of music, they may need some time to learn to hear chords in a way that enables them to make meaningful distinctions between them.

    I have never heard anyone suggest preference for consonance is "hard-wired", as the article suggests. I suspect that may be something of a straw man. What I certainly have read, and which makes sense to me from a scientific viewpoint, is that consonant intervals do not cause the beat frequencies that make a dissonant chord "harsh" to our ears. That is because intervals such as the octave, the fifth, the fourth, and the third are successive harmonics (overtones) of a common fundamental. And that is not culture, it is physics.
     
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  7. iceaura Valued Senior Member

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    The nature of consonance - the tuning system - of Western music is not as immutable or physics-based as the article implies. Most Westerners find La Monte Young's piano tuning to be "consonant" and pleasant, for example, despite the significant alterations of standard Western classical tempering he made.

    Meanwhile, the odds are that a real enjoyment of Highland bagpipe music - a sense, on first hearing even as an adult, that it's "your music" - is genetically controlled. That's my guess, anyway. The adequate explanations are few.

    Observation: the better and newer the strings, and the better built the guitar in the first place, the more agreeable and interesting complex chords become.
     
  8. exchemist Valued Senior Member

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    But, apart from your Scottish bagpipe example, you are talking about fine detail only here - different "temperaments" etc. The ear, unless very well trained, is usually not very conscious of such minor differences.

    Scottish bagpipes (not others) have, I think, a C and F tuned about a quarter tone sharp, which is weird. Massed pipes can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, partly I think because of the shrillness introduced by this bizarre tuning. Good for going to war. But obvious you cannot readily harmonise pipe music with other instruments.

    For other readers (I'm sure you know this), the basic physics of music is that the 1st harmonic is the octave above the fundamental, the 2nd harmonic is the fifth above that, the 3rd harmonic is close to (but not quite) the fourth above that, the fourth harmonic a major third above that and the fifth harmonic a minor third above that. The consonant intervals are thus very close to the harmonic series determined by physics. (Interestingly, some singers including me find intervals of a fourth a bit harder to pitch accurately than thirds and fifths, possibly due to the slight deviation from the "natural" harmonic series.) Thus, chords based on these feel like part of a single family, without inducing obvious beat frequencies.
     
  9. gmilam Valued Senior Member

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    I don't know that people prefer consonance to dissonance.

    I think that people just expect the dissonance to resolve to consonance.
    Sometimes we even expect a consonant chord to resolve. (i.e. ending a song on any chord other than the tonic.)

    Both of these may be culture related... There's still some debate out on that
    Haven't they found a pre-historic bone flute that is tuned to a pentatonic scale? This would imply to me that our sense of key is somewhat innate.
     
  10. C C Consular Corps - "the backbone of diplomacy" Valued Senior Member

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    Setting aside all the varying quirks / eccentricities and deviating features of the bagpipe itself around the world or through history... This might raise the question of a drone's effect on the musical cognition of an early or "primitive" culture.

    If a secluded tribe's only experience with simultaneous pitches was the playing or singing of melodies against a single drone (rather than mere unison or octave playing / singing that still counts as monophony), then perhaps that's one way they could become indifferent in a way like the article suggests. Without that necessarily be inherent.

    A steady drone produced by a wind instrument while another plays the melody against it can sound annoying to some modern Westerners, and their overall impression is one of dissonance. Despite the performance potentially spanning a whole range of quick, two-note pairs that qualify as both consonant and dissonant intervals, which the persistent drone note creates in conjunction with the flowing melody.

    But a culture isolated from music with complex harmonies would have no comparison -- just this thin, drone-based stuff becoming their norm. The flux of changing intervals might receive equal appreciation to the listeners or seem to all have the same status, especially if the community's melodies were fast or unbroken with few pitches emphasized / lingering in special ways against the drone.

    If the drone note was at least circa an octave lower (+/-) than much of the melody note range, then the "beats" might be less noticeable or irritating as well. For instance, the "C" on the 5th string of a guitar (3rd fret) and the "B" of the second string actually have a slightly sweet or moody texture when sounded together than when the latter is gratingly plucked with the neighboring "C" held on the fifth fret of the 3rd string. [As an aside, drones used / sounded on an acoustic guitar may be less annoying to whatever applicable faction of the modern crowd because the string's vibrations die away after being sounded rather than being that monotonously steady type. Playing a bass string drone in a rhythmic way with mutes sure makes it a lot more interesting, too.]
     
  11. C C Consular Corps - "the backbone of diplomacy" Valued Senior Member

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    Consonance might have been favored at the beginning of any supposed harmony developments in the earliest folk / traditional music. But the eventual monotony of it or craving for novelty brought dissonant relationships between simultaneous notes into vogue, as well as any progressions oriented toward the build-up and release of tension. Popular music in the West went through a repeat of the former with blues, jazz, and the electronic distortions of rock music disrupting the former blandness.
     
  12. iceaura Valued Senior Member

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    That seems to underestimate the complexity of "folk" melody (which would include various Eastern classical traditions such as those of India and China, which sound dissonant to many Western-habituated ears, as well as stuff like this: ). The need for adjustments of the scale to allow "consonant" Western classical harmony is peculiar to Western classical music, and the resultant scale is quite dissonant if one is not used to it.

    Guitar players who play open tunings and slide can demonstrate for the curious the large and obvious tuning adjustments that must be made to get them to sound good - the thirds of an open tuning are normally dropped considerably, for example, and the slide positions do not always match the frets.

    We can certainly bask in the glorious complexity of harmony made possible by the adoption of the standard Western "well-tempered" scale, our contribution to music, without underestimating the complexities of other traditions. As with the rhythms employed, the Western approach is based on a rigorous simplification.
     
  13. C C Consular Corps - "the backbone of diplomacy" Valued Senior Member

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    We know the current status and recent known history of non-western music, and how it can differ. But just as the equal & well temperament trends that arose in the last few centuries (and the just intonation before that which they compromised) weren't always a part of western Europe or its cultural descendants, there were likewise far earlier states of musical development in the rest of the world during ancient times and pre-recorded history. Simple pentatonic melodies may have indeed been among the first instances of pitch based music that was not rhythmic noise, with the exotic labyrinth of systems (going all the way to microtonal extremes) only emerging much later.

    Again, the very evolution of music in a region over centuries and millennia is going to produce varied experimentation with how to divide an octave interval up into smaller units and tinker with diverse approaches to harmony. Ever greater dissonance in regard to the latter will potentially arise over time due to the craving for novelty. Yet this doesn't exclude there having been a preference for consonance in the very beginnings of music. The unison singing and instrument playing of groups -- restricted to the same note or an octave apart -- could have deliberately wallowed in those constraints of monophony for some time due to their initial distaste for dissonance:

    Bob Fink: The simplest tone in nature is a single note (albeit, even these "single" notes have overtones, but we'll put that aside for now). When any harmony is added to a given note, it is a huge demand on our senses to acclimate themselves to not perceiving the combination as dissonant (in comparison to the non-harmony of single tones). That's because each tone added will produce its own additional audible overtones, each conflicting with those of other notes, producing an increasing movement back toward the dissonant properties of noise, as each new note or harmony is added. The single note is always more consonant than harmonies and chords. Noise may serve rhythm, but when tones or pitches become increasingly the objects of musical interest, then noise and dissonance are assigned a limited and specific role and are usually avoided for the most part in melody. So why did humanity bother with development of harmony at all? The answer is that there are relationships of overtones between the notes of a melody, even in a rudimentary pentatonic melody. That is the heart of any "scale."

    The role of harmony in a melodic musical culture is this: Harmony tends to overtly reveal between the notes of a melody what is hidden (in overtone relationships) by playing some of these overtone relationships out loud. This -- in the hands of a harmonicist/composer can either aid the perception of the connection between a melody's notes as they unfold through time, or even deliberately obscure those connections -- all to aesthetic effect. The dissonances of harmony now become tolerable once a musician is concerned with the connections between notes of a melody. As said, a musician in an "earlier" stage, prior to such melodic practices, is concerned more with the aesthetics effects of single or pure tones, and so would avoid the dissonances of deliberate harmonies [with the possible exception of using octaves and fifths, which are assigned to different voice ranges as a form of "unison"]. Therefore, we can so far explain from this why, in the limited data existing of the most ancient music, we likely will never find any deliberate harmonic practices existing unless and until the diatonic scale (or perhaps a pentatonic that includes occasional leading tones) has been established. Of course, as history unfolds, it never progresses in a neat & tidy manner to suit any theory of "stages." The stages can overlap or often be interrupted by a cessation of communication of, or inability to hand-down, past practices to a later community, and so the stages may end up beginning again in a later culture.
    http://greenwych.ca/stages.htm
     
  14. Write4U Valued Senior Member

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  15. iceaura Valued Senior Member

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    The overtone singing I linked you to, and the dissonant harmonies underneath it, is probably much older than any Western musical tradition (so called, meaning part of the development of Western classical music). And it is more complex in its harmonies, scale, tonal quality, etc, than the music of the early centuries of the Western "classical" development.

    For various reasons, Western classical music began and continued for centuries in a set of radical simplifications of the folk music of its time, some of which it still exhibits. The scale was simplified, the harmonies were simplified (initially), and the rhythms simplified to the point of becoming rudimentary. One of the reasons for this was probably literacy - the intonation and scales of folk music are difficult to write down, the rhythms basically impossible, unreadable. There were wonderful benefits to writing music, but they came at a price.

    At any rate, the notion that the progression from ancient folk music to modern Western classical works is one of increasing complexity in all respects is misleading.
     
  16. Bowser Life is Fatal. Valued Senior Member

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    Been thinking about the idea of culture Vs. Biology where music is concerned. I think I agree, for the most part. But maybe there are some basic elements in music that cross over from one culture to another?
     
  17. Write4U Valued Senior Member

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    Yes, apparently bio-chemical organisms are specifically tuned to certain frequencies. The organism is in harmony to certain frequencies, which seem to evoke a form of *emotional* response. A Sunflower will "follow the sun", in order to receive maximum exposure to light waves. Some plants will grow away from a loud cacophony of sounds, as well as just about every animal organism.

    Sound waves are used by many species to communicate and are understood by the listener of the same species. In order to avoid confusion, each species has its own variation so it can be recognized as the *communication* of a kind.

    A human example can be found in the fervent adoption of classical western music in Japan. YoYo Mah is but one example.

    Humans are also sensitive to variations in the soundwaves. These variations are found in the chord structure itself, such as major and minor chords. It is suspected that whales communicate in a chordal fashion.
     
  18. Bowser Life is Fatal. Valued Senior Member

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    Yep, that does seem to be a constant. The rhythmic patterns also play a role I would think. Western music does seem to inherit from previous compositions. However, people seem to popularize the unique, such as jazz.
     
  19. Write4U Valued Senior Member

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    True, but not because jazz is *free form*. I think the best term is *variations on a theme*, where the fundamental chordal structure of the composition is maintained but allows for spontaneous personal interpretation based on that structure.

    One of my favorite jazz compositions is *Django* (in memory of Django Reinhardt) written by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Their original recording is one of the most emotionally moving compositions and performance and will always be one of my favs.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLjjN2zovRU
     
    Last edited: Aug 15, 2016
  20. iceaura Valued Senior Member

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    Repetition with variation of phrases or motifs or the like, timed phrasing of accents, a definite beginning and end of defined works, the setting of words to melody, probably more.
    (that is not inevitable in related arts - for instance there are some poetry traditions, such as haiku, that count syllables to the line rather than timed "beats", there are no musical traditions I know of that count separate pitches for a phrase rather than timed beats).
     
  21. Write4U Valued Senior Member

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    I agree on the first part of your post but your suggestion that *pitch* is less important than rhythm is, IMO as an ex-musician, not correct. You are proposing that rhythmical *syncopation* is more important than melodic *inflection*. Perhaps that is true in Hip-Hop, but of course that is rhythmical poetry, not a song or melody, IOW, not really music. It is a separate hybrid art form, but by no means sets any subtle musical variation, tension, and release at the emotional level.

    Let me put it this way, a Stradivarius may cost 2-4 million dollars but not because you can keep good rhythmical time with it .

    I don't know your exposure or expertise in music, but I can really recommend a listen to this artist playing an unusual reed instrument and I am certain that rhythm is entirely secondary to the musical emotional interpretation of the video. Please do watch and listen to this little masterpiece. It made me cry with empathy.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3zfgFfC5kOs

    and for good measure:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcAkEl6AV5Y&index=11&list=RD3zfgFfC5kOs

    p.s. I always listen through high quality headphones just to *hear* the subtle melodic inflections which show the depth of artistry in the performer.
     
    Last edited: Aug 16, 2016
  22. iceaura Valued Senior Member

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    I was not clear, apparently.

    I was not denigrating the importance of pitch, or comparing pitch to rhythm, at all. I was pointing out that timing and duration of phrases and components of repetitions are universally significant in music - cross cultures - and not in other, sometimes considered related, arts such as poetry.

    There is no musical culture I know of that features anything like syllabic structure in poetry, for example: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/glossary-terms/detail/syllabic-verse
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syllabic_verse

    The notion itself is so alien that it appears to be difficult to describe - your examples to illustrate otherwise both incorporate solid rhythmic phrasing, create meaning via duration and timing, and illustrate rather than conflict with my assertion.
     
  23. Write4U Valued Senior Member

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    Actually, I agree with your analysis. I was thinking more about instrumental music than actual lyrics (poetry).

    p.s. As retired bass player, I always concentrated more on bridging the melodic content with the rhythmical content, though I have written some poetry. But as English is my second language, my poetry does not follow any specific structure, other than attempting to create a mental image in a pleasant cadence.
     

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