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PLoS One. 2013 Sep 4;8(9):e72500. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0072500. eCollection 2013.

From understanding to appreciating music cross-culturally.

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Department of Neurology, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, Leipzig, Germany ; Institute for Psychoacoustics and Electronic Music, University of Gent, Gent, Belgium ; Department of Nuclear Medicine, University of Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany.


It has long been debated which aspects of music perception are universal and which are developed only after exposure to a specific musical culture. Here we investigated whether "iconic" meaning in Western music, emerging from musical information resembling qualities of objects, or qualities of abstract concepts, can be recognized cross-culturally. To this end we acquired a profile of semantic associations (such as, for example, fight, river, etc.) to Western musical pieces from each participant, and then compared these profiles across cultural groups. Results show that the association profiles between Mafa, an ethnic group from northern Cameroon, and Western listeners are different, but that the Mafa have a consistent association profile, indicating that their associations are strongly informed by their enculturation. Results also show that listeners for whom Western music is novel, but whose association profile was more similar to the mean Western music association profile also had a greater appreciation of the Western music. The data thus show that, to some degree, iconic meaning transcends cultural boundaries, with a high inter-individual variance, probably because meaning in music is prone to be overwritten by individual and cultural experience.

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