Science as a means of cross-cultural communication

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Cell biologist Harold Varmus recently suggested, as previously announced here by David Weinreich, that science should play a much more prominent role in the way countries communicate with each other.

This insight comes as no surprise to scientists anywhere, (at least not to those who have an opinion on political matters), but it is notable because Varmus (co-founder of the Open Access publisher PLoS, by the way), is one of two Nobel laureates (along with physicist Steven Chu) with official roles in Barack Obama's administration. That is, contrary to most scientists, his voice might actually be heard by politicians.

I assume few politicians read this blog, but Varmus' suggestion triggered me to go public (under the  LitClub tag) in a more systematic way with the notes I take about papers of interest to me. The link between the two may not be obvious but if you are trained in fields rather remote from the focus of the paper in question, reading these notes might well provide you with an experience in cross-cultural communication. In any case, and particularly if you happen to have expertise in the field, feel free to comment or correct my notes, or to expand on them.

As a first example, I chose a paper on musical aspects of the cross-cultural communication of emotion (subscription required) by Tom Fritz and other former labmates of mine. Tom went to the Mandara mountains in Northern Cameroon to test the perception of Western (i.e. occidental) musical stimuli (and modified versions thereof) by people of the Mafa tribe who had never previously heard Western music.

Mandara mountains with Mafa village

Specifically, in Experiment 1, he subjected them to musical stimuli previously classified (by Westerners) as happy, sad, and scared/fearful, and the Mafa basically classified the pieces in the same way, though less clearly. As a next step, he presented the listeners with modified versions of the same musical pieces (played simultaneously in three different keys selected for dissonance, example here; further examples are in the Supplementary Materials). He also played both the original and the modified versions forwards and backwards.

Tom and his team in the Mafa village

Finally, Tom applied the same manipulations to Mafa music he had recorded and, back in Leipzig, he and his team repeated all these experiments with Western listeners (mostly of the Saxon tribe). The dissonant pieces from either culture were rated by both groups of listeners as less pleasant than the original versions, and so were the original or modified pieces if played backwards. Interestingly, the pleasantness ratings of most stimuli (original or modified, played forwards or backwards) increased with the time the listeners were exposed to them - an observation probably familiar to many a scientist exposed to acoustic, visual, olfactory or other kinds of sensory input over longer periods. This may also explain why both groups of listeners rated the different versions of the foreign stimuli more similar to each other (and less pleasant than those based on the music they were familiar with). A word about the paper's title "Universal Recognition of Three Basic Emotions in Music": Experiment 1 is clearly compatible with universal recognition of these three basic emotions, and for a comparison of just two cultures, the present study is about as close as you can get to evidence for cultural universals. I personally find it a bit stretched to imply human universals (or similarly, as is often done, human uniqueness in cross-species studies) on the basis of studying just two (or a few) cultures (or species), but I see the merit if this is taken as a working hypothesis that can be falsified, in principle, by any single culture (or species) for which it does not hold, since a systematic search for these exceptions (even if they do not exist) may well bring about a range of new insights into the topic at hand.

Access to the paper via the journal's site, unfortunately, requires a subscription, but the "supplemental data" accompanying the article is freely accessible. As has become standard in recent years, what formerly really was a "supplement" is now often considerably longer than the manuscript itself, and this one contains, besides the mp3 files linked from here, sections on methodology, results and discussion, along with more references than the paper itself (I would certainly prefer to have all this structured more coherently within one interactive medium, but as long as articles keep being printed on paper in bound issues of journals, this annoyance will probably stay). Further background information on these investigations, as well as details of related experiments can be found in Tom's PhD thesis. As for free encyclopedic background to this paper, consider taking a look at (or even contributing to) the list of music psychology topics (which includes a draft on Music and emotion) at Citizendium (an expert-guided wiki with real names and stable article versions). There will also (hopefully) be an article on Music and the brain in Scholarpedia (a wiki-based peer-reviewed journal for scientific reviews).

Tom's team stressed that ethnomusicological analyses across cultures with no prior musical contacts are becoming less and less possible due to the effects of globalization, particularly if Western music is involved. I would add that it is of course possible to do such analyses across two or more of the still many human cultures with large subpopulations that do not have access to electricity, particularly in isolated mountain ranges (I am certain it is easy to find people in, say, the Chiltan or Badakhshan mountains who were never exposed to Mafa music, and vice versa) but the main reason it makes sense to include Western music in such comparisons is that it serves as the model system in music psychology (on par with Xenopus laevis in vertebrate embryology or 1H in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, both of which will feature in my next LitClub post) and that experiments in Western settings generally allow for a broader methodological variety.

For further studies along these lines, I would be happy to see physiological measures (whose correlation with musical features has recently been receiving increased attention) and ethnomusicologists involved, along with Cameroon-based researchers. This brings us back to Varmus' call for more science in diplomacy. In this respect, it is noteworthy that performing these experiments in the Mafa village would not have been possible without diplomatic skills and a good deal of open-mindedness on both sides, and diplomatic channels have indeed been used to transport the solar panel that powered Tom's laptop. However, communication via any channel will always be limited by the number of people who have access to it, and by that measure, science can only approach but probably never reach music (or sports, or emotions, for that matter).

Image credit: Tom Fritz. License: CC-BY-SA.

ResearchBlogging.orgFritz, T., Jentschke, S., Gosselin, N., Sammler, D., Peretz, I., Turner, R., Friederici, A., & Koelsch, S. (2009). Universal Recognition of Three Basic Emotions in Music Current Biology, 19 (7), 573-576 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.02.058

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Tom Fritz's picture



MCrosby's picture

Daniel,This is pretty


This is pretty interesting. I am curious to know about the perception of harmonics in the rest of the world. Although I didn't read the article, I once upon a time did an honors project that combined my background in science (physics) and music. Was there any insight into predetermining the ability to understand tonal-based systems? Much of the world's music is based upon common elements of understanding the fundamentals of perceiving intervals of 'octaves' and 'fifths' in music. 

daniel's picture

The perception of harmonics

The perception of harmonics in cultures around the world was not investigated in this study but I know at least one paper that comes close: "The Statistical Structure of Human Speech Sounds Predicts Musical Universals" (subscription) by David A. Schwartz, Catherine Q. Howe, and Dale Purves. In their Fig. 4, they plotted the mean speech amplitude over the frequency ratios, and the peaks of those functions in speech data from speakers of Farsi, Mandarin, Tamil and American English were basically identical to the major musical intervals. Given such a relationship, a statistical learning device like our brain is likely to develop preferences for those intervals as a function of exposure.