Thursday, April 03, 2008

Culture and Cognition

Two recent studies explore how one's cultural heritage affects the perception of music. Sarah Trehub et al (U. of Toronto) found that Japanese children (5-6 years old) were more sensitive to pitch changes than Canadian children, identifying semitone shifts in familiar TV theme songs more readily than the Canadian children. The authors suggest the pitch-accent based Japanese language as a potential cause for the heightened pitch memory, as well as the greater prevalence of early childhood music education in Japan. Since Japanese children have to distinguish different pitch levels to understand their language, their pitch memory gets exercised and (apparently) develops more quickly. And since the Japanese children learn musical pitch labels in greater numbers than their Canadian counterparts, they are more used to the concept of pitch change in the first place.

Demorest et al (U. of Washington and UCLA) compared American and Turkish listeners, trained (at least 6 years of study in their primary area and university training) and untrained. These listeners were played musical pieces from Western, Turkish, and Chinese classical traditions. The participants then listened to excerpts, half from the previous examples and half from new music from the same styles, attempting to identify which excerpts they had already heard. Musical expertise played no role in the ability to remember excerpts within each style. But Americans were much better at recognizing Western excerpts than Turkish or Chinese excerpts, and Turkish listeners were much better at identifying Turkish excerpts than Chinese excerpts (and still significantly better than Western excerpts though not as great a difference). Since Turkish musicians also learn Western music theory and history, it is not surprising that they still recognized these excerpts at higher than chance.

Both studies show that enculturation has a significant affect on the development of musical memory, whether at the large scale of recognizing pieces or at the small scale of remembering note patterns. Here is a great example of adaptation, based on social environmental stresses rather than physical environmental stresses.* Japanese children adapt to the social demands of language and education by learning to identify pitch changes quickly. Americans and Turks adapt to their own cultures, recognizing unfamiliar elements of those cultures pretty well. Perhaps genetics will have to be tested with people adopted into different cultures than their birth countries, but the conclusions are pretty cool, if not that surprising.

SE Trehub, EG Schellenberg, and T Nakata (2008) "Cross-cultural perspectives on pitch memory." Journal of Experimental Child Psychology (e-pub).

SM Demorest, SJ Morrison, MN Beken, and D Jungbluth (2008) "Lost in translation: an enculturation effect in music memory performance." Music Perception 25, 213-223.

*I assume that Turkish and Japanese physical environments are not enough different from Canadian or U.S. environments to be the cause. Any corrections?

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