Elena Renken in Quanta:
In the lowlands of Bolivia, the most isolated of the Tsimané people live in communities without electricity; they don’t own televisions, computers or phones, and even battery-powered radios are rare. Their minimal exposure to Western culture happens mostly during occasional trips to nearby towns. To the researchers who make their way into Tsimané villages by truck and canoe each summer, that isolation makes the Tsimané an almost uniquely valuable source of insights into the human brain and its processing of music.
Most studies about music perception examine people accustomed to Western music, so only a few enclaves like these remote Tsimané villages allow scientists to make comparisons across cultures. There they can try to tease apart the effects of exposure to music from the brain’s innate comprehension of it — or at least start dissecting the relationship between the two. “We need to understand that interplay between our genes and our experience,” said Josh McDermott, an associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the senior author of a recent paper involving the Tsimané in the journal Current Biology which suggests that a feature of music most of us might consider to be intrinsic — the perceived organization of musical pitches into octaves — is a cultural artifact.