Menus Subscribe Search
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

September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

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