Associate Professor Neil McLachlan from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences said previous theories about how we appreciate music were based on the physical properties of sound, the ear itself and an innate ability to hear harmony.
"Our study shows that musical harmony can be learnt and it is a matter of training the brain to hear the sounds. So if you thought that the music of some exotic culture (or Jazz) sounded like the wailing of cats, it's simply because you haven't learnt to listen by their rules," said Associate Professor McLachlan.
The researchers used 66 volunteers with a range of musical training and tested their ability to hear combinations of notes to determine if they found the combinations familiar or pleasing.
"What we found was that people needed to be familiar with sounds created by combinations of notes before they could hear the individual notes. If they couldn't find the notes they found the sound dissonant or unpleasant," he said.
This finding overturns centuries of theories that physical properties of the ear determine what we find appealing, he added.
Coauthor on the study Associate Professor Sarah Wilson also from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences said the study found that trained musicians were much more sensitive to dissonance than non-musicians.
The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.