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The Cognitive Science of Music

Updated on April 25, 2016

Music is one of the most unifying entities in the world. Its simplistic beautiful melodies and alluring harmonies find home in every known civilization in the world. Many scholars and scientists believe that music is a form a cultural construct, and that it shares a very close relationship with our human biology. The area of scholarship which concerns itself with this field of study is informally known as musical cognition. Although this is a relatively young area of study compared to other scientific fields of research, it is becoming more widely accepted to consider music a form of cultural construct which many scholars believe is a universal human trait (thus considered a part of human biology). There is a growing consensus in the field of cognitive science that culture plays a big role in the cognitive perception of music. This literature review will analyze the works of various scholars to evaluate the relationship musical cognition shares with cultural constructs.

Until relatively recently, few accepted the theory that cultural constructs and musical cognition had any relationship. The scholarship of sound and musical phenomena preceding to the 19th century was focused chiefly on the mathematical modelling of pitch and tone. The latter 19th century saw the expansion of contemporary music psychology together with the development of a general empirical psychology, one which passed through like stages of progress. One example was ‘structuralist’ psychology, led by Wilhelm Wundt, which wanted to break down experience into its smallest definable parts. Music psychology in the second part of the 20th century has grown to cover a wide variety of theoretical and applied areas. The field expanded alongside cognitive science, and grew to include research on the cognitive perception of music. The development in musical psychology has created a widely accepted school of thought among scholars that cultural constructs are directly related to the cognitive assessment of music. Even modern composers, whom scholars treat as experts in the field of musical psychology, believe that musical partialities are culture-specific and can be altered by exposure alone.

To understand the the cognitive perception of music from a cultural standpoint it must be understood that music is a construct of the human mind. Scholars in the field of cognitive science agree that music is a product of our human biology. It is a pivotal dimension of the development of humans and may have played an integral role in the evolution of the human mind as we know it today. In “An Ethnomusicological Approach to the Analysis of Musical Cognition” by social anthropologist and ethnomusicologist James Kippen[1], Kippen makes the claim that the scope in which musical perception has been researched through is too narrow. He argues that musical perception has only been analyzed in a “western view” which has caused researchers to neglect culture as a factor. In “The Development of Cognitive Anthropology”, Roy Goodwin D'Andrade[2], a man considered to be one of the founders of cognitive anthropology, stated (p.146), “Since the 1950’s most anthropologists have defined culture as a purely mental phenomenon.” This means that if culture is considered a mental phenomenon, “the structures that exist in the physical world as objects or events...are all thought to be...more or less a reflection of these mental cultural structures.” In accordance with D’Andrade, Ian Cross[3], professor of music & science and PhD in music cognition, states in his article “Music, Cognition, Culture, and Evolution” (p. 30), “Given the success of cognitive science in instating mind in the material, it seems reasonable to expect that notions of mind might furnish terms that could connect the discourses of anthropology and of the natural sciences.” Cognitive science scholars recognize culture as a “mental phenomenon” which music is a product of.

It is important to note that there is some discord in the field of musical psychology. There is some disagreement about the gravity to which culture permeates the grain of our experience[4]. Some scholars in the practice do not believe that culture plays a significant role in the cognitive perception of music. D’Andrade[5] acknowledges the idea of an aboriginal and perceptual psychic unanimity by suggesting (p. 217) that “culture seems to have its greatest effect...on semantic memory and complex reasoning.” Even Ian Cross[6] periodically acknowledges the uncertainty in the actual significance cultural construct has in the cognitive discernment of music. He states (p.30), “The question of whether we should conceive of some psychic unity upon which culture forms an overlay, or a psychic diversity that is principally constructed by culture, remains unresolved”.

Some scholars in musical psychology believe that the cognitive perception of music is based on nonmusical foundations. Steven Pinker[7], a Canadian-born American cognitive scientist, psychologist, linguist, and popular science author, claims that music itself is a product of biology due to the fact the it is foundationally structured on nonmusical building blocks. Pinker believes that the prosodic component of language, auditory scene analysis, emotional calls, habitat selection, and motor control are all the foundation for which musical perception is structured on. Pinker uses these five factors to demonstrate how music is a trait that exist in all human cultures across the world, despite the extreme amount of diversity present. “One factor that appears to apply to almost all the world’s musics is that there is a level of temporal organization that is regular and periodic, sometimes called the tactus”. (p. 30). Cross[8] mentions that understanding things like humans being able to “keeping a beat” are key in understanding how music is more scientific than cultural. Marcus Pearce and Martin Rohrmeier[9], authors of “Music Cognition and the Cognitive Sciences”, state (p.471), “The ubiquity of music and extent to which it is ingrained in our cultures and daily lives makes it a fundamental aspect of everyday cognition.” If Marcus Pearce and Martin Rohrmeierare correct in saying this, and Cross[10] is correct in saying:

Musics are cultural particularizations of the human capacity to form multiple intentional representations through integrating information across different functional do- mains of temporally extended or sequenced human experience and behavior, generally expressed in sound.

then it can be said that musical cognition and cultural construct are closely related.

The field of musical cognition is fairly young and there is still much to be learned, but its relevance is difficult to refute. The scholars quoted in this article bring up valuable points and address many of the questions that blur the relationship between cultural construct and musical cognition. Scholars believe that music plays a vital role in human cognition and that music is a part of human biology and social interaction. Even thought there is a general consensus that culture affects the perception of music, scholars are still researching to uncover other mysteries in the field.


[1] Kippen, James. “An Ethnomusicological Approach to the Analysis of Musical Cognition.” University of California Press.

[2] D’Andrade, Roy. “The Development of Cognitive Anthropology.” Cambridge University Press. (1996): 146.

[3] Cross, Ian. "Music, Cognition, Culture, and Evolution." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 930, no. 1 (2006): 30.

[4] Cross. "Music, Cognition, Culture, and Evolution." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 930, no. 1 (2006): 28-42.

[5] D’Andrade. “The Development of Cognitive Anthropology.” Cambridge University Press. (1996): 217.

[6] Cross. "Music, Cognition, Culture, and Evolution." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 930, no. 1 (2006): 30.

[7] Pinker, Steven. “How the Mind Works”. London: Allen Lane

[8] Cross. "Music, Cognition, Culture, and Evolution." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 930, no. 1 (2006): 30.

[9] Pearce, Marcus, and Martin Rohrmeier. "Music Cognition and the Cognitive Sciences." Topics in Cognitive Science 4, no. 4 (2012): 468-84.

[10] Cross. "Music, Cognition, Culture, and Evolution." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 930, no. 1 (2006): 30.

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