Nature/Nurture and the Lasting Impact of Leroy Anderson


In the Bolivian Rain Forest at the base of the Andes Mountains lives an indigenous people know as the Tsimane’ people (pronounced ‘chee-MAH-ney’). These villagers are so remote that they are virtually untouched by modern civilization and Western culture, including our music. One of the results is that these people sing largely in monophonic tones and with no harmony. 

Recently, a team of scientists traveled to Bolivia to study these people and their musical preferences (and you thought ethnomusicologists had no fun?). The scientists tested the villagers musical preferences in regards to melodies, harmonies, and dissonance. 

The results of the test? 

It turns out the that the villagers had NO PREFERENCE WHATSOEVER about music. 

Whereas, people raised on “Western” music have a strong preference for melodies, harmonies, and the resolution of dissonance, their South American counterparts did not. They did not hear harmonies as any more or less pleasing than monophony and found no discomfort with dissonance when compared to its resolution. 

The conclusion… 

Musical preferences are a force of nurture and not nature. In other words, our environment, not our genetics, dictates our musical tastes and preferences both now and in the future. 

As a teacher, I have always innately believed this but never been able to quantify it. Show me a teacher whose excited about Ives Variation on America and I will show you students who embrace dissonance. Find me a teacher who truly understands a ii(min7)-V7-I(maj7) progression and I will show you young people who dig Dizzy Gillespie. Find me a choir that understands the difference between a chromatic and diatonic scale and I will show you a group that will embrace Eric Whitacre’s Sleep. 

As music educators we expose our students to different sounds and styles each and every day. In doing so, we are altering their musical tastes on an almost organic level. Long after they leave our classrooms our choices in programming and choosing ensembles will have an effect on their (musical) lives and likely those of their children. 

The above mentioned study makes clear the point that your students’ appreciation and consumption of music are significantly altered by the music they are playing each and every day in your classroom. 

Sure makes you rethink the horse whinny at the end of Sleigh Ride, doesn’t it? 

Have a great week. Some exciting stuff is coming your way next week. 

p.s. A couple of Christmases ago, my mother gave my wife and I tickets to Yanni. So, um… Yeah. Let’s just say that my musical growth was as stunted as my physical growth.