Crossing Boundaries: The Cultural Distance Hypothesis of Music Learning

All normally developing children acquire an understanding of the music and language of their culture without explicit instruction. This process of implicitly learning the norms of one’s own culture is known as enculturation. The process of musical enculturation is not well understood, but researchers have hypothesized that some form of statistical learning similar to that which influences language acquisition may underlie musical enculturation as well.

Based on our research into cross-cultural music memory, we propose a “Cultural Distance Hypothesis” that posits predictable expectation and memory responses for out-of-culture music. The hypothesis predicts that “The degree to which the musics of any two cultures differ in the statistical patterns of pitch and rhythm will predict how well a person from one of the cultures can process  the music of the other.”

This prediction can be tested in several ways. The first is to compare probabilistic computational models of music expectancy formation with extant data from behavioral studies of cross-cultural perception and memory. A second is to use the statistical properties of music to manipulate the cultural distance between two sets of stimuli and see if listeners respond accordingly. If human behavior can be predicted from these computer models, then we may gain a greater understanding of the mechanisms of music learning both within and between cultures.

Related publications

Demorest, S. M. & Morrison, S. J. (2016). Quantifying culture: The cultural distance hypothesis of melodic expectancy. In J. Chiao, S. Lu, R. Seligman, & R. Turner (Eds.) Handbook of Cultural Neuroscience (Vol. 1). (pp. 183-194).  New York: Oxford University Press.

Demorest, S.M., Morrison, S.J., Nguyen, V. & Bodnar, E. (2016). The influence of contextual cues on cultural bias in music memory. Music Perception, 33, 590–600. DOI: 10.1525/MP.2016.33.5.590

Morrison, S. J., Demorest, S. M., Campbell, P. S., Bartolome, S. J., & Roberts, J. C. (2013). Effect of intensive instruction on elementary students’ memory for culturally unfamiliar music. Journal of Research in Music Education, 60, vol. 363-374. doi:10.1177/0022429412462581

Patel, A. & Demorest, S. (2013). Comparative music cognition: Cross-species and cross-cultural studies, Chapter 16 in D. Deutsch ed. The Psychology of Music (3rd ed.). San Diego: Academic Press, 647-681.

Demorest, S.M. & Osterhout, L. (2012). ERP responses to cross-cultural melodic expectancy violations. in Neurosciences and Music IV: Learning and Memory, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 152–157. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2012.06464.x

Morrison, S.J. & Demorest, S. M. (2009). Cultural constraints on music perception and cognition. In J.Y. Chiao, (ed.) Progress in Brain Research, Vol. 178, Cultural Neuroscience: Cultural Influences on Brain Function. The Netherlands: Elsevier. 67-77.

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