Love of music is learned, study finds

By Jude Dineley 25 February 2013
Reading Time: 2 Minutes Print this page
Your taste in music develops through experience, and is not something you’re born with, say experts.

OUR ABILITY TO RECOGNISE subtle differences in musical notes, as well as our taste in music, are learned behaviours, a new study has found.

A study by researchers at the University of Melbourne has shown that the brain circuitry that controls how we hear music is adaptable, and that musical taste can be learned.

“If you thought that the music of some exotic culture – or jazz – sounded like the wailing of cats, it’s simply because you haven’t learnt to listen by their rules,” says Associate Professor Neil McLachlan, lead author of the study.

The finding, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, overturns centuries of research that says humans are born with their ability to identify musical pitch – the frequency of a musical note – and appreciate musical harmony.

The study also found that with practice, humans can learn to recognise the pitch of unfamiliar musical chords or instruments. Once able to do this, music they previously found unpleasant, or dissonant, becomes enjoyable.

In summary, “you’re not going to understand music unless you make an effort,” Neil says.

How humans recognise pitch

Neil and his team took a group of 66 volunteers with a range in musical training and played each of them a range of musical chords. Volunteers were asked to identify the pitch of a note in the chords and rate how unpleasant or harsh they found each chord.

When a volunteer got the pitch of a note wrong, they were more likely to find the chord harsh-sounding.

In a second experiment, the researchers played another series of chords to a group with no musical training, again asking them to rate their enjoyment of the chords. But this time, the volunteers were first given a crash-course in pitch recognition.

By the end of their training the group was able to correctly identify pitch, and they reported the chords they had learnt as more pleasant.

Can musical talent be taught?

These results suggest that music fans can ‘teach’ themselves to enjoy music genres radically different from their usual tastes, with a bit of practice.

The findings also go some way to contradicting the idea that talented musicians are born with natural ability, says Neil.

“It’s the end of the nature-nurture debate where people think that musicians are born with musical talent,” says Neil. “It’s not about talent at all, it’s about motivation and spending a bit of a time to learn, in the right environment.”

Psychology Professor Bill Thompson from Macquarie University, Sydney, says the findings are intriguing and raise fundamental questions about which sounds we find pleasant and unpleasant.

“This new evidence supports what a lot of musicians and composers have been claiming for decades: that persistent exposure to sounds in our environment can shape the way we hear,” says Bill.

“Sounds that are most familiar to us are experienced as harmonious and pleasant,” Bill says, adding that it will be fascinating to follow the debates that are likely to ensue around this study.