When people listen to music from other cultures, they often find it uncomfortable or less pleasant, or they may not “get it.” Most modern musicologists would say that this is because the way we make music and respond to it is learned, and therefore specific to our culture.
Yet, many people, including noted composers, claim that music is universal and transcends culture and language barriers. After all, combinations of notes with simple frequency ratios are in a sense natural and sound harmonious. The ancient Greeks thought music was universal because of its ties to mathematics. Plus, all cultures make music and no one knows why. When people listen to music from other cultures, they often find it uncomfortable or less pleasant, or they may not “get it.” Most modern musicologists would say that this is because the way we make music and respond to it is learned, and therefore specific to our culture.
So, is music universal and innate or is it learned? And is our emotional response to music instinctive or a cultural convention?
Music psychologists have come up with all kinds of experiments to test the universality of music. In 2004 Josh McDermott of the Center for Neural Science at New York University and Marc Hauser of Harvard University put tamarin monkeys in a V-shaped cage, offering them a choice of sitting near harmonious or dissonant musical chords, and found that the monkeys didn’t have a preference.
Neuroscientist Daniel Bowling of Duke University claims that major and minor scales have intrinsic emotional associations because their sound spectra are close to happy and sad speech. Tempo can also be seen as an emotional signpost; happy music is often faster.
This theory was tested by Stefan Koelsch of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. Western piano music was played for people from the remote region of Cameroon, many of whom had never heard Western music. They correctly identified the emotional intent of the music significantly more frequently than if by chance.
In another test of musical cultures, music psychologist David Horn of Ohio State University played a Balinese tune for Balinese and American musicians. When the music was stopped, the Balinese were better able to guess the next note, but Americans did better than if by chance.
So, what does all this say about the universality of music? McDermott believes that our concepts of musical structure are limited by our own auditory perception because we can only hold a certain number of pitches in mind at once. But, he still feels there is something universal about music. “Every culture that we know of has a genre of music geared toward infants,” he explains. “Music tends to always be used to signify important events within culture, such as weddings or funerals, and always seems to accompany religious rituals.” He says that music’s role might primarily “reflect the deep connection between music and emotion.”
Adapted from “Harmonious Minds: The Hunt for Universal Music,” by Philip Ball, New Scientist, May 10, 2010.