Modulation, a shift in mode (rĀgam), is important in South Indian classical (Carnātic) music. Here we investigate the sensitivity of Carnātic and Western listeners to such shifts. Carnātic music has two kinds of shifts: rāgamālikā (retaining tonal center, resembling a shift from C major to C minor in Western music) and grahabēdham (shifting tonal center, resembling a shift from C major to A minor). Listeners heard modulating pieces of music and indicated the point of modulation, and were measured for accuracy and latency. Indians were more accurate than Westerners with both types of modulation but Westerners were faster with grahabēdhams. Cues could explain performance differences between nationalities: Indians were more familiar with rāgamālikā-type modulations whereas Westerners’ culture made them more familiar with grahabēdham-type modulations. Increased caution toward the less familiar grahabēdhams for Indians could explain their slower response time compared to rāgamālikās. With grahabēdhams, hit rates for both groups were comparably high, but Westerners’ lower level of accuracy was due to higher false-alarm rates to lures that were superficially similar to actual modulations. This indicated their dependence on surface-level cues in the absence of familiarity and culture-specific information. Music training helped teachers in both groups make fewer errors when compared to students. Older listeners’ performance was comparable to that of younger listeners.

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