In a recent Nature paper, McDermott et al. (2016) conclude that the perception of consonance arises from familiarity with the conventions of Western harmonic music and is relatively unconstrained by auditory neurobiology. We refute this idea, citing cross-cultural, developmental and comparative evidence to the contrary, and raising concerns over McDermott et al.'s methodology. We conclude that although familiarity plays an important role in shaping tonal preferences, it must not be cast in opposition to clear biological constraints. Biology and culture (nature and nurture) interact to shape how we experience music, and theories that neglect the former do so at their peril.
THE PROCESSING OF COMPLEX, METRICALLY ambiguous rhythmic patterns, of the sort found in much popular music, remains poorly understood. We investigated listeners' abilities to perceive, process and produce complex, syncopated rhythmic patterns. Rhythmic complexity was varied along a continuum, quantified using an objective metric of syncopation suggested by Longuet-Higgins and Lee. Participants (a) tapped in time to the rhythms, (b) reproduced the same patterns given a steady pulse, and (c) recognized these patterns when replayed both immediately and after a 24-hour delay. Participants tended to reset the phase of their internally generated pulse with highly syncopated rhythms, reinterpreting or "re-hearing" the rhythm as less syncopated. High complexity in rhythmic stimuli can thus force a reorganization of their cognitive representation. Less complex rhythms were more robustly encoded than more complex syncopated rhythms in the delayed memory task. Syncopated rhythms provide a useful tool for future explorations of human rhythmic competence.
I suggest that the question of whether music is an adaptation has been overemphasized in recent discussions of the biology and evolution of music, because the subtleties of this question combine with our poor fossil record for musical abilities of extinct hominids to render many of the key facts necessary to answer it empirically inaccessible, for now and perhaps forever. Thus the “adaptation question” seems a poor choice as a defining issue for the new but rapidly growing field of biomusicology. This field will be better served if we treat this and similar evolutionary questions as “intuition pumps” to help generate testable hypotheses that spur further experimental work on living animals (in both laboratory and field) and humans. In addition to work on music perception, studies of production in animals such as songbirds and humpback whales will play an important role. Finally, I suggest that the distinction between culture and biology made by many in the field creates a false dichotomy: like birdsong learning, human musical ability is better treated as an “instinct to learn” with biological and cultural aspects intimately intertwined.