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MIT Students Invite International Participation In Major Music Study


Is one man’s Mozart another man’s migraine? It might be, if culture plays the dominant role in music perception, as has been alleged by many 20th century composers. Thus far, such matters have been the province of armchair debates, but now two MIT students have designed an experiment to measure just how different-or similar-perceptions of music are across cultures.

The students are conducting a web-based Music Universals Study to measure the perception of music in people all over the world.

The researchers are inviting the public to participate, at

Mary Farbood, a Ph.D. student at the MIT Media Lab, and Josh McDermott, a Ph.D. student in MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department, have been at work for the past year on a study designed to measure the degree to which perceptions of music vary from culture to culture.

To do this they created a psychology experiment designed to measure how people from different cultures hear music. Their goal is to collect data from thousands of people all over the world in order to better understand how different aspects of music perception vary with culture, age, musical training and other factors.

Farbood and McDermott’s study grew out of questions about music perception that have puzzled scientists and philosophers for thousands of years. "Despite its central role in human culture, the origins and adaptive function of music remain a complete mystery," McDermott said. "As a cognitive scientist, I was fascinated by the question of which aspects of music perception and appreciation are universal-and hence probably innate-and which vary with cultural and musical exposure."

Historically such studies have been difficult to conduct because of geographical limitations. But thanks to the Internet, Farbood and McDermott have already collected data from hundreds of people around the world and all walks of life, and they want to hear from thousands more.

The success of the study depends on the extent and diversity of participation, so the pair is hoping to attract many visitors to the website, particularly from far corners of the globe. The Music Universals Study measures the way users respond to different sounds by asking questions about musical preferences, the perception of emotion in music, and the perception of tension and resolution.

For example, participants are asked to listen to two different sounds and to rate which of the two is preferable. They are also asked to choose a graphical representation or written description that best illustrates a particular short musical clip. In all cases Farbood and McDermott are interested in how consistent the responses prove to be within a country, and how different they are in different parts of the world.

The duration of the study will depend in part on how quickly the researchers amass data from different parts of the world, but Farbood and McDermott hope to have answered some of the most significant study questions within the year.

Heather Manning | MIT News Office
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