The interval is called “the devil in music” because of how it sounds: unpleasant, unsettling, even scary. It relies on two notes separated by three steps, creating the dissonance known as a tritone that composers for centuries have used to great effect.

You hear the sound in the intro to Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” and in the theme song from the “Twilight Zone.” And you know immediately that you’re supposed to feel unsure and apprehensive. Musicians have long believed our dislike of it is innate.

But if you grow up among the Tsimane, an isolated society in the Bolivian Amazon, you might have no problem with the tritone. Uninfluenced by Western musical tastes, the Tsimane have no preference for consonant chords over dissonant ones, researchers reported Wednesday in the journal Nature.

“People tend to assume that features of music that are present in Western music have some kind of fundamental importance, some biological basis,” said Josh McDermott, an auditory neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and lead author of the study. “But this result that suggests that isn’t the case.”

In a study that took them from cities in the United States to villages in Bolivia only reachable via a days-long canoe trip, McDermott and his colleagues surveyed more than 250 people to test the centuries-old theory. They found that preference for consonant sounds correlated directly with exposure to Western music. Music students in this country are highly likely to judge them as “pleasant” and dissonant sounds as “unpleasant” – but Americans without musical training slightly less so. City and town dwellers in Bolivia also showed a preference for consonance, though it was much less pronounced than that of Americans.

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