A Universal Music or Academic Hegemony?

March 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

A group of researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Austria have been conducting research in hopes of uncovering “universal” associations between music and human emotions. Using both Western (read: Classical in the German tradition) and Mafa (a group living in the mountains of Cameroon) participants and musical exemplars, they have presented empirical evidence that demonstrate both groups perceive and react to certain musical structures similarly. That is, they wish to assert that all humans share a musical semiotics.

This is not an epistemology I understand. What exactly do we gain from this sort of work? I suppose it’s a pleasant picture for those who conceptualize music in Roman numerals and Schenker graphs. Since there is plenty of fine work in ethnomusicology and anthropology that challenge this notion of cultural universals, I am not going to get into it here. But if we don’t even understand how people of our own culture perceive music, how could we have the arrogance to start claiming we have uncovered global features of music? I thought we had realized music is not physics.

But don’t take it from me. I would be interested to hear what you think of this:


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