Many foundational questions in the psychology of music require cross-cultural approaches, yet the vast majority of work in the field to date has been conducted with Western participants and Western music. For cross-cultural research to thrive, it will require collaboration between people from different disciplinary backgrounds, as well as strategies for overcoming differences in assumptions, methods, and terminology. This position paper surveys the current state of the field and offers a number of concrete recommendations focused on issues involving ethics, empirical methods, and definitions of “music” and “culture.”
I t has long been assumed that rhythm cognition builds on perceptual categories tied to prototypes defined by small-integer ratios, such as 1:1 and 2:1. This study aims to evaluate the relative contributions of both generic constraints and selected cultural particularities in shaping rhythmic prototypes. We experimentally tested musicians’ synchronization (finger tapping) with simple periodic rhythms at two different tempi with participants in Mali, Bulgaria, and Germany. We found support both for the classic assumption that 1:1 and 2:1 prototypes are widespread across cultures and for culture-dependent prototypes characterized by more complex ratios such as 3:2 and 4:3. Our findings suggest that music-cultural environments specify links between music performance patterns and perceptual prototypes.
Polak’s (2010) chronometric analyses of Malian jembe music suggested that the characteristic “feel” of individual pieces rests upon nonisochronous subdivisions of the beat. Each feel is marked by a specific pattern of two or three different subdivisional pulses—these being either short, medium, or long. London (2010) called the possibility of more than two different pulse classes into question on psychological and theoretical grounds. To shed light on this issue, 23 professional Malian percussionists and dancers were presented with timing-manipulated phrases from a piece of Malian drumming music called “Manjanin.” In a pairwise comparison experiment, participants were asked: (1) if the items of each pair were same or different, and (2) if different, which of the two was the better example of the characteristic rhythm of Manjanin. While most contrastive pairs were well distinguished and produced clear preference ratings, participants were unable to distinguish short-medium-long patterns from short-long-long patterns, and both were preferred to all other manipulations. This supports London’s claim that, perceptually, there are only two pulse classes. We discuss further implications of these findings for music theory, involving beat subdivision, tempo effects, microtiming, and expressive variation, as well as methodological issues.