Are Your Musical Preferences Your Own?

Many factors influence our personal music preferences and determine whether a song is enjoyable to us. The reasons why people like certain artists or musical genres are highly complex and individual. However, in terms of simple musical sounds, there are fairly universal regularities in what people experience as pleasant and what they do not. For instance, it is very typical for people to experience consonance as more pleasant than dissonance. This preference has previously been believed to be innate, something determined by our genetic makeup. However, in an article recently published in Nature Josh McDermott and his colleagues reported results from a series of experiments that investigated the role that culture may play in preference for consonance.1

They asked subjects in the USA and in Bolivia as well as subjects from a tribe called the Tsimane’ to rate the pleasantness of consonant and dissonant sounds.

The Tsimane’ were of particular interest because of two reasons:

1) They live in almost total isolation of Western culture, as they do not have televisions, and limited access to radio. Additionally, their village can be reached only by canoe and therefore they very rarely came into contact with representatives of Western culture

2) Traditional Tsimane' music features no harmonies, polyphony, or group performance, meaning that listeners are not exposed to multiple simultaneously presented musical sounds.

The results of the experiments showed that while city-dwelling individuals from the same region as the Tsimane', as well as American city dwellers, showed the typical preference for consonance over dissonance, the Tsimane’ did not! This suggests that this preference for consonance is not in fact innate, but of cultural origin. 

In an important commentary on the article, Sync Project Advisor Robert Zatorre pointed out that perhaps because the music of the Tsimane omits polyphony, the auditory system of these listeners is shaped during development in a way that makes it less sensitive or less attentive to dissonance.2 This may be one way that culture shapes our preferences. However, Zatorre maintains that the innateness of preferring consonance is not yet disproven because the Tsimane´ did dislike roughness - a quality of sound closely related to dissonance. The original article and the commentary beautifully show how investigation of the nature/nurture question rarely results in clear conclusions - rather, as Robert Zatorre writes “there are...innate biological constraints on which environmental input operates.”

In addition to the effects exposure to a certain sound environment can have on auditory processing and subsequent pleasure, another important, but perhaps understudied cultural factor is the opinion of other people. It is easy to imagine that peer and social opinion play a big part in musical preference. Think back to high school for instance, and how your friends’ like or dislike for a piece could dramatically alter even your own enjoyment of it. In addition to friends and peers, the opinions of experts also weigh heavily on how music is perceived. It is possible that whether an album gets 4 or 5 starts in Pitchfork can significantly influence some listeners and alter how good the music sounds to them.

What does science say on this - is it true? Are we susceptible to the experiences and opinions of others when it comes to musical preferences and enjoyment? A recently published study aimed to find out.3

The researchers conducted two studies where they asked participants with no formal music training to listen to pairs of performances of the same piece and rate which one they preferred, as well as the performer’s skill. In the first study the participants listened to 8 pairs of piano performances. Prior to listening, they were told that they would hear performances of the same piece by two performers: a “conservatory student of piano” and a “world-renowned professional pianist”. This was sometimes true, and the participants did actually get to hear a student and a professional playing, but at times the participants were actually listening to the same performance (either by the student or the professional) twice! After each individual performance, the participants evaluated their preference for the musical piece, the skill of the performer, and were also asked to identify which of the two excerpts was performed by the “world-renowned professional.”
In the second study, the same exact procedure took place, but the participants were told before listening which one of the musical performances was by a professional and which one by the piano student. However, there was a catch – the prior information about the identity of the performer was accurate in only 50 % of the cases! This means that the participants were half of the time told that a professional was playing when in fact is was a student, or vice versa.
According to the results of both studies, the participants’ evaluation of their preference for the musical performances was influenced by the order in which they heard them – with the second performance being more often rated as more enjoyable and the performer more skillful. The researchers speculate that this is probably caused by the piece becoming familiar and thereby more enjoyable. 

Whether the performer was actually a professional or a student also affected the ratings, with participants reporting to like the recordings of performances by the professional more. However, if the participants were told that the performance was by a professional, they rated it as more preferable even when the performance was not by a professional but by a student! The Pitchfork-effect may therefore exist!
All in all, the results reveal a lot about musical preference and enjoyment:
1) familiarity plays a big role in enjoyment
2) musically nontrained individuals are really good at spotting the professional!
3) extrinsic information about the quality of a musical performance can have significant effects on enjoyment

The last result is of course not the first one showing how priming can influence people's’ experiences and behavior. For instance, in one hallmark study of priming, university students primed with words related to old age and retirement, such as “Florida” walked the length of a corridor more slowly than participants who were not exposed to such words before the walking task!4

However, in terms of future studies on music listening preferences, the result brings up important considerations regarding how musical pieces are presented to the subjects. Future studies also need to investigate how musical expertise may influence these effects, as well as look into other individual differences that may influence the effects of priming on musical enjoyment. And on a personal level, it brings up a philosophical quandary - according to whose musical preferences are you actually choosing and enjoying music? Or in the end, if your enjoyment is genuine, does it really matter?

Written by Ketki Karanam & Marko Ahtisaari


1. McDermott, J. H., Schultz, A. F., Undurraga, E. A., & Godoy, R. A. (2016). Indifference to dissonance in native Amazonians reveals cultural variation in music perception. Nature, 535(7613), 547-550. doi:10.1038/nature18635

2. Zatorre, R. (2016). Human perception: Amazon music. Nature, 535(7613), 496-497. doi:10.1038/nature18913

3. Kroger, C., & Margulis, E. H. (2016). “But they told me it was professional”: Extrinsic factors in the evaluation of musical performance. Psychology of Music, 0305735616642543.  doi: 10.1177/030573561664254

4. Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of personality and social psychology, 71(2), 230.