Research Reveals First Evidence of Bimusicalism in Untrained Listeners

January 11th, 2010 in Other Sciences / Social Sciences

(PhysOrg.com) -- Music, like language, is affected by the mass cultural exchanges resulting from globalization. Bilingualism is increasing, and now a University of Arkansas researcher and her colleagues present the first evidence for bimusicalism in untrained music listeners.

“It is interesting that bimusicalism may be more prevalent than bilingualism, yet bimusicalism had not been studied in a laboratory setting,” said Elizabeth Margulis, who studies cognition at the University of Arkansas. The research is published in the current issue of Music Perception.

Margulis worked with colleagues Patrick C.M. Wong and Anil K. Roy of Northwestern University to devise and administer two experiments to reveal whether music listeners understand aspects of unfamiliar music from a different culture as well as they do the music of their own culture.

The researchers worked with volunteers in India and in the United States - people who were music listeners, not musicians, and who were familiar with music from their culture, but not from the other culture. They also tested another group in the United States who were not trained musicians but had experience listening to both Western and Indian music.

First, the researchers tested - the ability to identify whether a music clip came from a previously heard symphony. Second, using snippets of music specifically composed for the project, they tested tension judgment, that is, the ability to sense a melody’s progression toward resolution or dissonance.

Not surprisingly, listeners showed more understanding for the music from their own culture when they had not heard another culture’s music. However, those listeners who had had significant exposure to both cultures’ music showed equal responses to music from either tradition.

“These research results provide a scaffolding for more research on bilingualism and bimusicalism,” Margulis said.

For example, the research cannot answer “whether one type of music exists as a ‘parasite’ of another type.” That is, does the knowledge of one type of music interfere with the brain’s processing of the other type of music, as has been seen in the processing of a second language?

The researchers also point to the need for further study “at this critical junction of globalization where few monocultural experiences of music remain and numerous multicultural experiences are emerging.”

Margulis plans to do more research using neuroimaging to see whether bimusicalism is similar in the brain to bilingualism. She’s interested in understanding how much music processing is “grafted on” to language processing.

Margulis is an associate professor of music in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas.

Provided by University of Arkansas

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