In the Mind of the Beholder

Two things recently have got me thinking about our perception of beauty – particularly in music – and the extent to which this is a universal trait, or a product of culture.

The first is a study by Fritz T. et al., described over at Cognitive Daily. The study concerned the Mafa people, a remote, culturally isolated tribe in Cameroon, who have never been exposed to Western culture. The researchers played clips of Modern Western music and asked the people to report the emotion they believed the song conveyed. The results clearly show that, despite no experience with Western music, the subjects could correctly report the conveyed emotion significantly better than chance. Furthermore, they could correctly choose between “good” western music, and clips which had been altered to be discordant and “bad”. Art, it would seem, is not entirely subjective.

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The second is a fascinating 2007 social experiment conducted by a Wahington Post journalist. For 43 minutes in a bustling metro-station, world-renowned concert violinist Joshua Bell played some of the most intricate and celebrated classical pieces of his repertoire on his Stradivarius. Hardly anyone stopped to take notice, and the man who commands upwards of $1000 a minute for his concerts recieved a paltry $34 and change. This raises some interesting quesitons about the necessary frame of mind to recognize and percieve beauty.

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Nicholas is a senior undergraduate majoring in Cognitive Systems (Computational Intelligence stream). He enjoys a wide spectrum of intellectual pursuits from programming to philosophizing. As well as writing for the Terry project, he maintains a private blog, and a personal home page. His long-term goals include earning his Ph.D, and crushing all life beneath the iron-clad heel of his merciless robotic cohort.

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