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Universality and cross-cultural variation in mental representations of music revealed by global comparison of rhythm priors


Dr. Nori Jacoby
Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Frankfurt, Germany


Music is present in every known society, yet varies from place to place. What, if anything, is universal to the perception of music? This question has remained unanswered because previous cross-cultural experiments have compared only small numbers of cultures. We measured mental representations of rhythm in 39 participant groups in 15 countries across 5 continents, spanning urban societies, indigenous populations, and online participants. Listeners reproduced random seed rhythms; their reproductions were fed back as the stimulus (as in the game of “telephone”), such that their biases (the prior) could be estimated from the distribution of reproductions. Every tested group showed a sparse prior with peaks at integer ratio rhythms. However, the occurrence and relative importance of individual integer ratio categories varied across groups, often reflecting local musical practices. By contrast, university students and online participants in non-Western countries tended to resemble Western participants, underrepresenting the variability otherwise evident across cultures. Our results provide evidence for a universal feature of music perception – discrete rhythm “categories'' at small integer ratios. These discrete representations likely help to stabilize musical systems in the face of cultural transmission, but interact with culture-specific traditions to yield diversity that is evident when perception is probed at a global scale.