The scale or pitch sequence of musical notes employed in most systems follows a simple, mathematical relationship. While the pitch of a note and its octave are separated by a factor of two, the intervals that fall in between are separated by approximately equal differences in pitch, which can be described by mathematical ratios of simple integers. The apparent structure and simplicity led to the idea that appreciation of forms of music could be something “wired in” and music in different parts of the world may share basic features.

Another feature that is common in western music is the choice of combinations of notes that can be sounded together to be pleasant and not jarring. There seems be a reason for such combinations, too. In the case of the first, third and the fifth steps of the scale, for example, which is one of groups that appear together in Western music, the ratio of frequencies is such that many of the overtones, or the octaves of the different notes, are of equal pitch and the overall sound is rich and well rounded. The use of such groups of notes, which are said to be consonant, is ubiquitous in Western music and it has been believed that comfort with these combinations is universal and must be shared by all peoples of the world.

Josh H McDermott, Alan F Schultz, Eduardo A Undurraga and Ricardo A Godoy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University, Massachusetts, Texas and Santiago in Chile, studied the response of people of a remote tribe in the Amazon who had negligible exposure to Western music to see if this was true. They report in the journal Nature that while the Timane people had a musical system of their own, they did not respond to musical sounds in the way persons in the Western world do.

Melody and harmony

While melodies are created by arranging the notes in sequences, according to a metre, or periodic time pattern, an embellishment is the sounding of different notes at the same time. Any two notes, however, cannot be played or sung together and there are rules of which musical notes may be sounded together. That some pairs, or triads, or even more notes, played together are pleasing to the ear while others are not is the basis of much of Western music. These notes, or groups of notes, which sound well when played together are said to be consonant or in harmony.

This sounding of simultaneous but different notes, often in separate melodies, is known as polyphony and formed the basis of early church music and all of Western classical music. Thus, a melody created out of the notes of a scale could be accompanied by notes, or groups of notes, which are in harmony with the main melody note and the accompaniment usually changes according to the rhythm to which the melody is set, as a “progression”. The same melody could also be played at the same time in more than one sequence of pitch, with the notes of the different sequences, which are sounded together, being in harmony.

The use of harmony and the simultaneous progress of different melodies, known as counterpoint, enrich Western orchestral music, which now has a vocabulary of musical representation of different moods and human emotions — the magnificent, pathos, valour, despair and so on.  The idea of harmony and mood is basic to Western music and there are specific kinds of note groupings, called chords, which are recognised as “happy” (major chords) or “contemplative or gloomy” (minor chords).

Is it universal?

Josh H McDermott and colleagues note in the paper that the belief that the sense of harmony is universal, with a biological basis that applies to all people, has not been tested in practice. They, hence, carried out trials to compare the preference for consonant sounds of (a) residents of the USA, (b) residents of the city of La Paz, capital of Bolivia, (c) a rural town, San Borja, and (d) a native, horticulturalist-forager community, the Tsimane, in Santa Maria, a remote village in the Amazon rainforest.

A series of sounds, which are considered pleasant or unpleasant by conventional Western standards, was presented to the persons tested to see if they were sensitive and could identify the conventional classification, The sounds presented were (i) consonant chords, like the first, third and the fifth steps of the scale played together, or dissonant chords, which were combinations of the first and second step, or the first and the seventh step; (ii) the same note in different octaves, or a pair of notes slightly off harmony; (iii) rough tones, which were closely separated one that produce a rise and fall in volume; and (iv) to test for recognition of real moods, the sound of laughter and gasps.

Among the US residents there were two groups — one of persons who had musical training and the other of persons who had not. The three groups in Bolivia ranged from those that had considerable exposure to Western music to the isolated natives who had no exposure at all. The Tsimane natives, in fact, have a traditional music system based on scales, but their music never uses any group singing or two notes appearing at the same time, even in the form of an accompanying percussion. This group, hence, was clearly without any exposure to consonance or dissonance — and their recognition or preference to either of such sounds would be indicative of reasons other than practice or cultural training.

The results of the trials were that while the all the city and town groups showed clear preference for consonant or harmonic sounds, with the musically trained group showing the most marked preference, the Tsimane group was quite indifferent in all of the trials, except the one with the laugh and the gasps. They were just as sensitive as the other groups to prefer laughter, which is pleasant, to gasps, which suggest sorrow or pain and are abhorrent. But they were deaf to the qualities of consonance or harmonising of sounds, which form the bedrock of Western music. 

The findings reveal that musical appreciation is really not innate or biological but culturally regulated and results from socialisation. A formal study of the question has not been made so far, the authors of the paper say, and is also difficult as there are few communities whose musical sensibility is still unaffected by a culture that has labelled consonant sounds as beautiful. The study of the Tsimane people may have been just in time to show that there are other ways of hearing sounds than what we know of.

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