Musical Tastes Are Cultural in Origin, Not ‘Hard-wired’ in the Brain, Study Suggests

  • Full-Size Image: cultural tastes and music
    Baylor anthropologist Alan Schultz, Ph.D., (right) conducts study of musical tastes of Bolivian rainforest resident (left).(Courtesy photo)
  • Full-Size Image: cultural tastes
    Baylor researcher Alan Schultz, Ph.D. (Courtesy photo)
Aug. 23, 2016

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WACO, Texas (Aug. 23, 2016) — A new study of a remote Amazonian farming and foraging community suggests that musical tastes are cultural in origin rather than "hard-wired" in the brain.

One of the authors of the study, published as the cover story in the leading multidisciplinary science journal Nature, is Alan Schultz, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of anthropology in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

Schultz and researchers from MIT and Brandeis University traveled to Tsimane’ territory in Bolivian Amazonia to conduct their research. They asked the rainforest participants to listen to two types of chords — dissonant and consonant.

Most participants from the rainforest rated dissonant and consonant sounds about the same.

But a comparison group of westerners preferred the combination of notes in the chords of C and G — often heard in pop music — and generally considered dissonant notes as “clashing.”

“It more or less comes down to harmonic or inharmonic,” Schultz said. “The interesting thing about the Tsimane’ is that there’s almost no singing or playing instruments together. The tradition is playing solo on the flute or songs about parts of life.” For example, some song subjects are about spider monkeys, trees, hunting or foraging.”

To validate the study, researchers asked more than 100 Tsimane’ respondents to rate the pleasantness of various sounds — among them laughter, cries and gasps. The Tsimane’ responses then were compared to those of American musicians and non-musicians; residents of the Bolivian capital of La Paz; and Spanish-speaking Bolivians who live in a small town near the Tsimane’.

All groups rated the sounds similarly, except when it came to music. Preferences for consonance were progressively lower in groups with less exposure to western music and the Tsimane’ alone reported no consonance preference whatsoever. The results strongly support the conclusion that culture plays a determinant role in the development of musical preferences.

More information on the study can be found in this video story. Sound clips are available here.

Other researchers were Josh McDermott, Ph.D., the Frederick A. and Carole J. Middleton Assistant Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Ricardo Godoy, Ph.D., professor of international development at Brandeis University; and Eduardo Undurraga, senior research associate at Brandeis’ Heller School for Social Policy and Management.


Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 16,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.


The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University’s oldest and largest academic division, consisting of 25 academic departments and 13 academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines.

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