Natural Music


Most musicologists think that music began within a human culture. Another idea is that our love of music has biological roots, perhaps mimicking the sound of heartbeats in the mother’s womb. Now there is scientific evidence to support a cultural origin, though the biological influences are not entirely discounted.

Deep in the Bolivian Amazon, the Tsimane Tribe make their own kind of music. It has a strong contrast between consonance and dissonance, sounds that have interested musicologists since the culture of ancient Greece.

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JH McDermott et al write in today’s Nature (July 28) that the Tsimane perceive consonance and dissonance differently to westerners. Their harmonies are simple, only played one at a time, while there is an indifference to dissonance. In the west this is used for background texture or to express tension: not so in Bolivia.


This is distinctive cultural variation in music perception. Some observers also say that the new conclusions are confirmed by the observation that the Tsimane prefer laughter to unpleasant gasps.

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