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Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2003 Nov;999:112-7.

Exploring the influence of cultural familiarity and expertise on neurological responses to music.

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  • 1University of Washington School of Music, Seattle, Washington 98195-3450, USA. demorest@u.washington.edu


Contemporary music education in many countries has begun to incorporate not only the dominant music of the culture, but also a variety of music from around the world. Although the desirability of such a broadened curriculum is virtually unquestioned, the specific function of these musical encounters and their potential role in children's cognitive development remain unclear. We do not know if studying a variety of world music traditions involves the acquisition of new skills or an extension and refinement of traditional skills long addressed by music teachers. Is a student's familiarity with a variety of musical traditions a manifestation of a single overarching "musicianship" or is knowledge of these various musical styles more similar to a collection of discrete skills much like learning a second language? Research on the comprehension of spoken language has disclosed a neurologically distinct response among subjects listening to their native language rather than an unfamiliar language. In a recent study comparing Western subjects' responses to music of their native culture and music of an unfamiliar culture, we found that subjects' activation did not differ on the basis of the cultural familiarity of the music, but on the basis of musical expertise. We discuss possible interpretations of these findings in relation to the concept of musical universals, cross-cultural stimulus characteristics, cross-cultural judgment tasks, and the influence of musical expertise. We conclude with suggestions for future research.

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