Traditional musicians in Mozambique play self-made instruments in 2022.

Opinion: Including Globally Diverse Groups Improves Music Research

To learn about how the human brain perceives music, researchers must expand studies beyond Western music and culture.

Western music and culture have had widespread influence around the world and have deeply affected research designed to understand how human brains process music. That has made it difficult for researchers to distinguish between what is universally true and what is uniquely linked to Western music culture. But recent studies are revealing some of these distinctions by including more diverse music, study participants, and researchers from non-Western cultures. What music researchers have learned in this process also has implications for other fields that use similar research methods, such as behavioral science and neuroscience.

Western music includes classical, pop, rock, punk, and anything else that follows the same set of music theory rules about notes, chords, and rhythms. It’s a very broad category that covers anything from Mozart to Taylor Swift.

Some other music cultures throughout the world traditionally use different types of rhythms and notes. However, most music research is carried out in countries where people mainly listen to Western music. And if researchers themselves are only familiar with this type of music, that might also limit the way in which they work.

“If you are not interested in views from other cultures, you might not ask very interesting questions that come out of those musical traditions,” said neuroscientist and jazz musician Peter Vuust of Aarhus University. In 2022, Vuust and his colleagues reviewed what was known about music perception from the cognitive neuroscience literature. They found that, overall, studies showed that the brain’s ability to make predictions plays a role in the way we perceive and respond to music. When we listen to music, our brain predicts which notes or rhythms come next and responds based on whether those expectations are met. For example, if you only hear the first three lines of the “Happy Birthday” song, it sounds unfinished. The fourth and final line completes the song and meets our expectations of what should happen.

But Vuust noted that most existing studies only looked at Western music cultures, which could have affected the results. For example, the way that people connect musical harmonies with emotions is likely culturally dependent, so without data from other music cultures, it would be difficult to draw universal conclusions.

Western music is a very broad category that covers anything from Mozart to Taylor Swift.

A few months after that review appeared in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, the journal also published a correspondence between Vuust’s team and Keio University music researchers Patrick Savage and Shinya Fujii about how to reduce Western bias in the data.

For a study exploring the connections between music and speech, Savage — who is also now a Rutherford Discovery Fellow at the University of Auckland — realized that his own background would limit his ability to interpret recordings of global music samples. “It’s hard to know if what I’m hearing and perceiving is what the musicians themselves are hearing and perceiving,” he said. He knew that he would need help from musicians of many different backgrounds, including Indigenous communities. So Savage and Fujii collaborated with 73 other researchers from around the world who collectively spoke 55 different native languages. The music researchers all contributed their own knowledge and co-developed the study.

Nori Jacoby studies auditory perception at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics and carries out globally inclusive music research. Jacoby recently published a study with Josh McDermott of MIT and colleagues showing that rhythm perception is partly determined by the music culture that people are immersed in. “Everybody has very different experiences in their lifetime,” Jacoby said, and cross-cultural research helps scientists to understand how those experiences change perception.

This study included people from non-Western music cultures. But the researchers found that simply including people from different countries was not enough. When the study compared students or online participants from different countries, the variation in their perception of rhythm patterns was much smaller than when the researchers included people outside of these groups. In fact, students and people who took online surveys were similar to U.S. residents in rhythm perception, perhaps due to more exposure to Western music.

This is an important observation, because music researchers are not the only ones who recruit study participants from student or online populations. It’s common practice in any field that relies on human volunteers.

Some areas of music research, such as Vuust’s, use neuroscience techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to measure brain activity. An additional challenge for these studies is that the availability of large MRI machines further restricts which participants are included. Vuust is currently collaborating with a research center in China to compare music perception in people from China and Denmark with a technique complementary to MRI that uses a large scanner. The work is “restricted to where the scanners are,” Vuust said.

Cross-cultural research helps scientists to understand how different experiences change perception.

Other analytical methods are more portable, such as electroencephalography, or EEG, which measures electrical activity in the brain via electrodes on the scalp, typically embedded in a cap worn tightly on the head. It’s used across different areas of research and health care, but there is room for improving inclusivity here as well. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University developed a new EEG system with electrode hair clips rather than a cap, which can be used with Black hairstyles or hair types that did not fit the original cap. This allows the method to be used more widely.

Overall, researchers are becoming more mindful of broadening participation in research studies by considering who has been excluded and which knowledge is missing because of that. Savage and Jacoby both plan to continue working in large cross-cultural research collaborations to further explore how people interact with music.

But it’s important to note that being inclusive in any research related to human behavior or neuroscience is not simply about checking boxes to make sure all demographic groups are represented. It’s about finding variables, such as which types of music someone is familiar with, that can distinguish what is true for everyone from what is influenced by culture. And as music researchers have shown, including a wider variety of cultures can make research itself more meaningful and more representative of everyone.

Eva Amsen is a writer and science communicator focused on the culture of science and the common ground between science and the arts.