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Is the affinity for music innate?

Your strong desire to hear the music of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs just might have been inherited.

Do we learn to love music, or is it innate? An Internet-based study being conducted by two MIT students may help answer that question.

The Music Universals Study, created by doctoral students Mary Farbood and Josh McDermott, is an effort to determine to what degree musical appreciation is a factor of culture versus an innate part of human behavior. In the study, Web participants listen to different sounds and then answer questions about them. Was the chord pleasing or annoying? Did it make you happy or sad?

The responses of people from various cultures will then be compared for differences and similarities.

"There is a lot of speculation that music may have piggybacked on language."
--Josh McDermott,
researcher, MIT

"There is a lot (in music appreciation) that is learned. That much is clear. What is less clear is what is shared," McDermott said. "With the Internet, we've got a new tool to probe people."

Ideally, the study could provide fodder for the long-running cultural debate about the nature of music and the widespread appeal of many pieces of music, such as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

But the results could also help fill in gaps in scientists' knowledge about human evolutionary history. If some sound combinations have universal appeal, it could turn out that our reactions are rooted in the genetic code. If so, a new question emerges: What stimulated humans to evolve to hear music?

"There is a lot of speculation that music may have piggybacked on language," McDermott said.

Getting a broad sample will likely be one of the principle obstacles of the study, which kicked off about six weeks ago. The study is currently being conducted only in English, but it will soon be available in Hindi, Mandarin, Spanish and possibly Arabic. Most respondents so far are from North America.

Conducting the survey over the Internet rather than through a field study also likely means that many of the overseas responses could come from people who are more familiar with Western music than the average person living there. A field study, however, would be impractical, and even with an online study the data could still show how or whether reactions to different combinations of notes or sounds remains independent of culture.

The test takes about five minutes. The first set of questions ask an individual to choose which of two sounds is more pleasing than the other, using a seven-point scale. In the second battery, a sound is played, and participants--again, using a scale--grade whether the sound made them happy or sad.

A third set of questions ask listeners whether they think a string of sounds or musical notes seems to be "going somewhere." Subjects are asked to choose from a series of pictures that indicate that tension is increasing, decreasing, staying constant or following some other pattern. This portion of the test is the only one that uses sets of sequential sounds, rather than individual sounds.

Both McDermott and Farbood have been involved in other research.

McDermott has conducted studies on the reactions of monkeys to music. So far, he's found that music doesn't soothe the savage beast. Although monkeys can recognize tempo changes, they don't discriminate between sounds that are pleasing or dissonant to us.

"This suggests that a lot of music perception is unique to humans," he said.

A few years ago, Farbood created HyperScore, a PC application that helps individuals compose music through graphics. Among the compositions created using the application was "Creepy Raindrops," by then 10-year-old Chelsea O'Hara. The piece was later performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra as part of the experiment.