Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


music-intolerance

(ILLUSTRATION: ANDRIUS REPSYS/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Music Bridges Cultures? Actually, Not So Much

• July 25, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(ILLUSTRATION: ANDRIUS REPSYS/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research suggests the discomfort caused by listening to “strange” music can lead people to lose empathy for outsiders.

Can we train ourselves to be more comfortable with, and less fearful of, people from different cultures? Well, we can try, and for some, that means tasting their food and listening to their music.

Bad idea. Newly published research suggests that approach could have the opposite of its intended effect. It finds listening to unconventional music prompts people to denigrate outsiders.

A research team led by University of Limerick psychologist Paul James Maher reports that hearing “music that is difficult to reconcile with existing expectations about music structure and sound” can kick off a chain of unfortunate thoughts and emotions. According to this analysis, people unconsciously grasp for the sense of meaning the odd sounds fail to provide—and often find it by affirming their allegiance to their own social group.

The next time you think about inviting a closed-minded friend to a multicultural fair, think again.

In the European Journal of Social Psychology, the researchers describe three experiments which provide evidence backing up their thesis. One featured 60 students from the University of Limerick in Ireland. Half listened to a four-minute-long piece of music that is typical of contemporary electronic pop: Da Funk, by the French group Daft Punk.

The others listened to Interstellar Narcotics by the avant-garde electronic music artist Venetian Snares. “This artist is known for making music in odd numbered time signatures that can arguably be considered unconventional to most people,” the researchers write.

Afterwards, all were asked what portion of an imaginary 100 million Euro social-services budget should be set aside for services to the “traveling community,” which the researchers describe as an “often marginalized minority group.”

Those who had listened to the less-conventional music allocated significantly less money to that much-maligned community.

In another study, 63 University of Limerick students listened to one of two versions of the instrumental song One Late Night by the blues artist Dr. John. Half heard the original recording, while the others heard “the same piece of music that had been edited by an experienced musician to make it appear less coherent, while keeping the length and tempo the same.”

They then read a scenario in which an Englishman, driven by ethnic prejudice, severely beat an Irishman, and was subsequently taken into custody. Participants were asked what would be the “appropriate jail sentence” for the perpetrator.

“Participants who had been exposed to the unconventional music gave significantly longer jail sentences to the English offender,” the researchers report. “It appears the deviation in (musical) structure was enough to elicit out-group derogation.”

These results “are consistent with studies demonstrating that people compensate for ‘meaning threats’ by reaffirming meaningful frameworks elsewhere,” the researchers write. Unfortunately, in these cases, this compensation apparently took the form of reaffirming the participants’ loyalty to their society, which showed up in a decreased willingness to empathize with outsiders.

So the next time you think about inviting a closed-minded friend to a multicultural fair, think again.

“Traditional music from one culture or society can often sound unconventional to outsiders,” the researchers note. “Celebrations of culture and tradition are often accompanied by music, and as a result, attempts to celebrate and share diversity may have the reverse effect.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.