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Cross-Cultural Research and the Nature of Music

Is it a “small world” after all, with respect to music perception and cognition?

For me, one of the most intriguing questions about music is the extent to which different aspects of human musicality are in-born as opposed to learned. Does the language you grew up speaking, and the music you grew up hearing, affect the way you hear music as an adult? Do they make a difference in your ability to learn and enjoy unfamiliar music? One way to approach these questions is to look at cross-cultural studies. Which features of human music and musicality, if any, seem to be found the world over? If music from different corners of the world shares certain features, or if people from different cultures respond to music in similar ways, then that can help us guess which aspects of human musicality are innate. If other features are highly culturally specific and found only in certain groups, then they are less likely to reflect innate capacities. A recent survey of research results by Catherine Stevens (2012) throws some light on these questions.

The evidence so far suggests that your native language effects the way you hear and experience music. Researchers had native Japanese and English speakers listen to simple rhythmic sequences of tones (Iverson, Patel & Ohgushi, 2008). They found that the two groups had distinct preferences, with Japanese-speaking listeners preferring a pattern (a long-short grouping) that was hardly ever selected by English speakers. The researchers hypothesize that the different common rhythmic units in Japanese as opposed to English influenced listeners in their musical preferences. Another study compared sixteen English and French-speaking composers (Patel & Daniele, 2003). Sure enough, the rhythmic patterns of the composers’ native language made a difference to the rhythmic organization of the music they composed.

It seems that we get accustomed to, and come to prefer, the rhythmic patterns in the music that we grow up hearing. For example, in most music of the West, beats are regular and related by simple ratios. However music from the Balkans, and from Asian and African regions, contain irregular rhythms. One study had African and European adults tap along in time to African and European rhythms (Toiviainen & Eerola, 2003). There was no difference in how the two groups responded to European melodies. However European listeners struggled to synchronize with African melodies. They had particular difficulties with rhythmic patterns similar to clave (pronounced “clah-vay”) rhythm – a 2 bar pattern with 5 beats in total, which is the basis of much Latin music.

While people who have grown up without exposure to irregular rhythms may struggle with them as adults, the news is much better with regard to unfamiliar ways of organizing musical tones. In most (but not all) of the world’s music, tones are organized into “key signatures,” such that certain tones are perceived as more stable and more important than others. Different musical cultures have different ways of organizing tones. In experiments using Indian ragas, Korean court music, and traditional Sami songs, listeners from within and outside the culture were found to be sensitive to tonal hierarchies.

I found these results particularly informative because of my interest in debates about the evolutionary psychology of music. But Stevens stresses other good reasons to pay attention to and support this kind of research. For the most part, theories of perception and cognition have been developed in Western contexts and tested on western subjects (usually, on college students). Unless these theories are tested and evaluated in different contexts, we cannot be sure that they have cross-cultural validity. Examining music perception and performance around the globe is one way of doing this. Finally, western music, for better or worse, is by now nearly ubiquitous. Studying the music and the musical practices of non-western cultures can help to document and preserve the world’s musical heritage.


Iverson, R.J., Patel, A.D., & Ohgushi, K. 2008. Perception of rhythmic grouping depends on auditory experience. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 124(4): 2263-2271.

Patel, A.D., & Daniele, R.J. 2003. An empirical comparison of rhythm in language and music. Cognition 87(1): B35-B45.

Stevens. C.J. 2012. Music perception and cognition: a review of recent cross-cultural research. Topics in Cognitive Science 4: 653-667.

Toiviainen, P., & Eerola, T. 2003. Where is the beat? Comparison of Finnish and South African Listeners. In R. Kopiez, A.C. Lehmann, I. Wolther, & C. Wolf (eds.), Proceedings of the 5th triennial ESCOM conference (pp. 501-504) Germany: Hanover University of Music and Drama.

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