Thursday, April 9, 2009

Cultural Universals in Music and Emotion

Earthenware pot: contemporary Mafa culture
Photograph by maremagna

Dave Munger at "Cognitive Daily" has a fascinating post today on the cultural universality of the perception of emotions as conveyed by music.

"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.

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?"

Click through to read the entire article, if only to listen to the audio clips of Mafa music, which to me felt like a spring-time riot of buds and shoots bursting out of the ground. A little more web research revealed that the Mafa only use music as a celebratory medium, primarily around planting and harvesting. Curious about Mafa art, I was able to find the above example of an extraordinary hand built earthenware vessel, with human teeth.


  1. I'd have to agree with the universality of music. Things that come from the heart of human creativity has a common universal language. We talked about this in a course I'm taking at McGill, in terms of sufi music. In that context we were talking about music being one of the only art forms of not the only that spurs people to create another art form upon listening to!

  2. Your course sounds very interesting! Thanks for your comment. You have inspired me to post a Marcel Dzama designed music video. I hope you will like it as much as I do. Look for it on the weekend.