Is Music Appreciation a Learned Trait?

I was surprised, while listening to the audiobook of Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory, to learn that the great literary master — a man of so keen a visual sensibility as to rise to rapturous rhetorical flights in describing a collection of mushrooms picked by his mother half a century before — had no ear at all. “Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds,” he wrote. “Under certain emotional circumstances I can stand the spasms of a rich violin, but the concert piano and all wind instruments bore me in small doses and flay me in larger ones.”

A new study performed by the University of Melbourne suggests that the ability to enjoy music can actually be taught — that familiarity with chord patterns renders them less jarring to the ear:

The team played both “pure tones” and various chords for participants — a mixed group of trained musicians studying at the school’s conservatory and members of the general public — and had them rate the sounds for perceived dissonance, and for familiarity, on a five-point scale.

Trained musicians, perhaps predictably, were more sensitive to dissonance than lay listeners. But they also found that when listeners hadn’t previously encountered a certain chord, they found it nearly impossible to hear the individual notes that comprised it. Where this ability was lacking, the chords sounded dissonant, and thus, unpleasant.

The ability to identify tones and thus enjoy harmonies was positively correlated with musical training. Said study co-author Sarah Wilson, “This showed us that even the ability to hear a musical pitch (or note) is learned.”

But familiarity wasn’t Nabokov’s problem. He was shlepped to the opera constantly as a child (“I must have attended Ruslan and Pikovaya Dama at least a dozen times in the course of half as many years”) and it had no effect on his receptiveness to music. (Of course, that might just say something about Ruslan and Pikovaya Dama.) I doubt that if I were exposed repeatedly to, say, electro trance music, I would be any less inclined to run away from it screaming. The study says that familiarity renders chord patterns less dissonant, which may be true, but then infers that less dissonant means more enjoyable. Can that leap be made?

I’ve noticed that a degree of musical sensitivity appears to be innate — every kid I’ve asked (and I’ve asked quite a few over the years) has identified a major third as “happy” and a minor third as “sad” — but it seems folly to conclude that music appreciation is universally teachable. There must be variants in receptivity, as Nabokov appears to demonstrate. It seems reasonable to infer a relationship between music and language, and Nabokov’s receptiveness to language was so exceptionally keen that he “saw” letters of the alphabet in very particular colors (“the alder-leaf f, the unripe apple of p, the pistachio t“). But no colors attached themselves to musical notes for him: they were all just noise.

Ricochetti, do any of you know the science of this? Can music appreciation be learned?