The Mafa people, who live in the far north of Cameroon in the Mandara mountains, are one of the most culturally isolated groups in the world. Since many of their settlements lack electricity, there are some individuals who have never been exposed to western movies, art, or music.
But the Mafa do have their own musical tradition. Many of their ceremonies are accompanied by a unique chorus of flutes of varying sizes, which can produce different pitches by covering and uncovering a small hole at their tip. The music they produce is quite different from Western-style music. Here’s a sample:
Because of their isolation and very different musical tradition, they can help answer a question that has perplexed music scholars and psychologists for generations: are there musical “universals”? In other words, do the emotions conveyed by music depend on what we’ve learned through our culture, or can anyone perceive the emotion intended by a composer of a given musical work? Does “good” or pleasant music have cultural boundaries?
A team led by Thomas Fritz visited the Mafa people and played excerpts from Western music intended to evoke one of three emotions: happiness, sadness, or fear. The listeners were pre-screened to make sure they had never been exposed to Western music. The experimenters showed the listeners images of faces expressing each of these emotions, and asked the listeners to point to the face that best represented the emotion conveyed by each excerpt. Here are the results, as compared to the results for the same clips as identified by German listeners:
Both Western and non-Western listeners recognized the intended emotion at rates significantly higher than chance (the dotted line on the chart). So even people who’ve never been exposed to Western music can understand the intended emotion.
The reverse experiment, playing Mafa music to Westerners, would have been impossible, because Mafa don’t traditionally associate particular emotions with their music. However, the researchers could test whether Westerners could distinguish between “good” and “bad” Mafa music. The clip you heard above is an example of traditional Mafa music. Here’s another clip that’s been digitally modified to sound dissonant:
And here’s an unmodified Western music clip:
Here’s a dissonant Western clip:
Both the German and Mafa listeners heard dozens of clips like this — some as they were originally played, and some modified to be dissonant. They then rated each clip using a slider marked with a smiley face (good) and a frustrated face (bad). Here are the results:
Although the differences were small for Mafa listeners, they rated the unmodified clips significantly higher than the modified clips, both for Western and Mafa music. For Western listeners, a similar, though stronger result occurred.
The researchers say this shows that at least some portion of music appreciation may be universal. The more dramatic effects among Western listeners suggest that cultural influences may also contribute, but some basic part of the the way we understand music may be shared by everyone, no matter what we have learned from our culture.
Fritz, T., Jentschke, S., Gosselin, N., Sammler, D., Peretz, I., Turner, R., Friederici, A., & Koelsch, S. (2009). Universal Recognition of Three Basic Emotions in Music Current Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.02.058