Cross Cultural Barriers Essays On Music

It has long been debated which aspects of music perception are universal and which are specific to a specific musical culture. A recent paper, "Universal Recognition of Three Basic Emotions in Music" by T. Fritz, S. Jentschke, N. Gosselin, D. Sammler, I. Peretz, R. Turner, A. Friederici, S. Koelsch in Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 7, Pages 573-576 – freely available here) reports a cross-cultural study with participants from the Mafa tribe in Northern Cameroon and participants, each group being ignorant of the musical tradition of the other (here is an example of Mafa music). Results show that the Mafas recognized happy, sad, and scared/fearful Western music excerpts above chance, suggesting that the expression of these basic emotions in Western music can be recognized universally.



"The Mafa flutes consist of two functional components, a resonance body made out of forged iron and a mouthpiece crafted from a mixture of clay and wax. The flute is an open tube which is blown like a bottle, and has a small hole at its bottom end with which the degree to which the tube is opened or closed can be controlled. The depicted set of Mafa flutes is ‘‘refined'' with a rubber band."


The recognition of emotional expressions conveyed by the music of other cultures had been experimentally investigated only in three previous studies. These studies aimed at indentifying cues that transcend cultural boundaries, and the authors made an effort to include listeners with little prior exposure to the music presented (e.g., Westerners listening to Hindustani music).



Although these three studies have significantly enhanced our understanding of how cultural experience may influence music perception, participants had been exposed to mass media and thus also probably to emotional cues of the other musical tradition (for example, through film music).



Here, Experiment 1 investigated the ability to recognize three basic emotions (happy, sad, scared/fearful) as expressed in Western music. Results show that the Mafas recognized happy, sad, and scared/fearful Western music excerpts above chance, indicating that the expression of these basic emotions in Western music can be recognized universally. Both Mafas and Westerners relied on temporal cues and on mode for their judgment of emotional expressions. For the tempo, they were more likely to classify pieces with higher tempo as happy and pieces with lower tempo as scared/fearful, whereas for sad pieces, no correlation with tempo was observed. The categorization of pieces was also significantly influenced by the mode of the piece, in both groups. Both Westerners and Mafas classified the majority of major pieces as happy, the majority of pieces with indefinite mode as sad, and most of the pieces in minor as scared/fearful.

The authors explain :

"The universal capacity to identify emotional expressions in Western music is presumably at least partly due to the universal capability to recognize nonverbal patterns of emotional expressiveness such as emotional prosody: emotional prosody is mimicked by Western music as a means of emotional expression, and it has also previously been shown that emotional prosody can be recognized universally. This interpretation is consistent with the notion that similar emotion-specific acoustic cues are used to communicate emotion in both speech and music."

Note that people are also able to recognize emotions in remote cultural dance traditions (Cognitive Daily has a very good post on how westerners can recognize nine primary emotion recognition in Indian Classical dance). And I can't help sharing the video of the musician Bobby McFerrin demonstrating the musical instinct of ordinary people.


World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale from World Science Festival on Vimeo.

As he says, his shown works everywhere but again the best evidence in favour of the universality of some cognitive capacity is cross species comparison. And there it is on Youtube!


(More about Snowball and the "Experimental Evidence for Synchronization to a Musical Beat in a Nonhuman Animal" by Aniruddh D. Patel, John R. Iversen, Micah R. Bregman,  and Irena Schulz in Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 10, 827-830, 30 April 2009 here)

A final anthropological note: Some anthropologist may deplore the psychologists' focus on universality. And they may be right. Once you have demonstrated that some feature of a cultural phenomenon like music is universal, you still have to explain the extraordinary variety of its other aspects. But the authors of this cross-cultural study are well aware of this variety. They write in the supplemental material:

"Although some of the data aquired in Experiment 1 may be interpreted as corroborating the idea of music as a medium to universally mediate emotion, a possible absence of a variety of emotional expressions in Mafa music suggests a different interpretation. If music were in its essence indeed a universal language of emotions, why does Mafa music seems to not express a comparable variety of emotions as Western music? The appropriate answer to this is that although emotional expressions in music are perceived universally, this may not be the principal function of music (as already pointed out by Hanslick in his 1854 essay). Despite the observed universals of emotional expression recognition one should thus be cautious to conjure the idea of music as a universal language of emotion, which is partly a legacy of the period of romanticism."

So this study of the universality of emotion recognition in music leavesus with avery interesting anthropological question: Why do some musical styles use emotions while others do not? Any answer?

(Thanks to Valérian Chambon, Coralie Chevallier, Nicolas Claidière and Robin Dunbar for bringing these articles and videos to my attention.)

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Foundations
2.1 Culture
2.2 Communication
2.3 Cross Cultural Communication

3 Dimensions of Communication
3.1 Verbal Communication
3.2 Nonverbal Communication
3.3 Paraverbal Communication

4 Barriers to Cross Cultural Communication
4.1 Language differences
4.2 Nonverbal communication
4.3 Paraverbal Communication
4.4 Stereotypes
4.5 Making a Judgement
4.6 High Level of Stress

5 Conclusion


1 Introduction

Nowadays we talk and hear about the big topics like “Globalisation”, “Internationalisation of markets” and “New Technologies for Communication”. In our today’s world boundaries between states as well as big distances between particular states do not play a big role anymore. Nearly everyone is able to get in connection with everyone he likes to; not matter what country he lives in, what time it is or with whom he likes to talk.

This development leads to the arising importance of “Cross Cultural Communication”. Thinking about business for example most of all existing companies operate all around the world by now. If a salesman from England wants to make profit, he will have to offer his products not only in his home country; he also will have to offer them in Japan and Germany. So for doing his job he has to communicate across cultures. It is the same in many other branches, like politics or movie makers for instance.

It is an evident aspect that communicating across cultures is associated with problems and barriers to communication. The first big problem getting in mind is the language itself, because two communication partners must own one language which both of them are able to speak.

Aside from this, persons from different countries have also a different cultural background. So they have different values, beliefs and ideologies. Those differences can cause misunderstandings and lead to stereotypes. For communication partners these assumptions are a hard foundation for communication with high effects.

This thesis is based on literary research about the topic “Barriers to Cross Cultural Communication”. It adopts all barriers which seem to be very important and interesting for readers. Firstly it is spoken about the foundations concerning cross cultural communication, followed by the three dimensions of corporate culture. Afterwards this thesis goes more into detail, while regarding five barriers to cross cultural communication. The last point is built by a short conclusion.

2 Foundations

2.1 Culture

The term “culture” is of Latin derivation and refers to the tilling of the farming land. Contrary to that western languages commonly interpret culture as civilisation (Hofstede/Hofstede/Minkov, 2010).

In literature exist many varied ways, in which the word “culture” is defined. This thesis takes the following definition:

“Culture consists in patterned ways of thinking, feeling and reacting, acquired and transmitted mainly by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional ideas and especially their attached values” (Kluckhohn, 1951:86).

Using this definition culture is not regarded in the sense of literature, music and art. It means to have a shared system of attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviour (Gibson, 2000).

Geert Hofstede, a social psychologist from the Netherlands, has called culture “collective mental programming” or in analogy of programming computers “the software of the mind”. A person’s mental program is based on its social environment of early childhood and continues at school, the workplace and living community. Therefore mental programs are as different as the social environments in which they were acquired. One important aspect is that culture is a collective phenomenon, because people living in the same social environment have the also the same culture. They partly share their culture (Hofstede/Hofstede/Minkov, 2010).

2.2 Communication

To understand the meaning of the word “communication” it has to be defined. One possible definition regards communication as “a two-way process of reaching mutual understanding in which participants not only exchange information but also create and share meaning” (, 2010).

The following model shows the process of communication.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Illustration 1: The Process of Communication

On one side there is the sender. His task is to send a message to the receiver who has to interpret it. Again the receiver gives a feedback to the sender. In turn the sender receives the feedback and interprets its meaning in his individual way. The message as well as the feedback can be transferred by verbal and non-verbal communication.

Problems in the process of communication can appear by interpreting the message and the feedback, because sender and receiver may have a different understanding of the same term. So in the process of communication every involved person has to make sure that the communication partner understands the intended meaning of the message.

2.3 Cross Cultural Communication

After the definitions of culture and communication have been mentioned, the question is what is characteristic about cross cultural communication.

Firstly it can be said that the term “cross-cultural” implies interaction with persons of different culture, ethnic, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age and class background (, 2010). In addition cross cultural communication is a process of exchanging, negotiating, and mediating cultural differences through language, non-verbal gestures, and space relationships (ibid). It can also be regarded as the process by which people express their openness to an intercultural experience. This openness is one of the most important aspects of cross cultural communication.

Nowadays cross cultural communication becomes more and more necessary for a large number of people. Thinking about globalisation, the internationalisation of markets, the ongoing immigration processes and the growing tourism sector the reasons for this deployment seem to be clear.

3 Dimensions of Communication

For successful cross cultural communication it is fundamental to get to know about the different dimensions of communication, because one essential feature of cross cultural communication is that at least one communication partner uses a foreign language.

3.1 Verbal Communication

Verbal communication makes it possibly to communicate face-to-face. It is the basis of communication that allows interaction of people.

In the area of verbal communication cultural differences concerning the language are obvious, especially if words that describe issues are only existing in this culture. Nevertheless misinterpretations can appear. In many case it is not the right way to translate your own words into a foreign language, because it is possibly that words have different meanings in different settings. An example is the english word “friend”. When Americans talk about friends they mean people who they know casually. In contrast Germans call people they know very well and like very much friends (Bergemann/Sourisseaux, 2003).

3.2 Nonverbal Communication

Besides verbal communication the nonverbal one has a large percentage of our daily interpersonal and even cross cultural communication (, 2011). Verbal communication always goes along with nonverbal communication. Notably in a communication across cultures people rely on nonverbal communication.

Nonverbal Communication includes

- Body Language
- Eye Contact
- Touch
- Body Distance
- Turn Taking (Gibson, 2004).

Contrary to verbal communication our nonverbal communication is noticed unconsciously in most times. Regardless it is the dimension of communication that varies highly between different cultures (Bergemann/Sourisseaux, 2003).

3.3 Paraverbal Communication

Paraverbal communication means the tone of our voice or how fast we speak. A sentence can convey different meanings depending on the emphasis on words and the tone of voice. These characteristics differ between countries and states. So Indian question sentences have the same voice intonation than European declarative sentences.

In addition paraverbal communication contains the loudness of speaking. It seems to be clear that this is an aspect everybody has to keep in mind while visiting a foreign country and speaking to its inhabitants. The necessity of speaking loud or even quiet is something that is very different across cultures (Bergemann/Sourisseaux, 2003).


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