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Vassilakis, P.N. and Kendall, R.A. (2008b).  Two case studies of culture-dependent emotional reactions to music: Middle-Eastern mijwiz pieces and Bosnian ganga singing.  Proceedings of the 20th biennial meeting of IAEA (International Association of Experimental Aesthetics). CD-ROM, Kenneth S. Bordens, editor. Chicago, IL.


Attaching meaningful and emotional qualities to instrumental pieces of music relies, partially, on experiencing musical tension/release patterns, set up using various sonic and sonic-organization devices (Bigand and Parncutt, 1999; Krumhansl, 2002). Performance practices outside the Western art musical tradition place high importance on one such device, “auditory roughness” (or “sensory dissonance”), for communicating expressive intent. For example, the Middle-Eastern mijwiz is constructed and performed in ways that highlight the importance of narrow harmonic intervals, fast trills, and their corresponding rough sounds (Racy, 1994; Vassilakis, 2005). Similarly, the ganga style of singing, common in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Dalmatian Zagora regions of the Balkans, relies heavily on the sonic effects produced by sound interference and the associated perceptual roughness (Petroviç, 1977; Vassilakis, 2005).
We performed two perceptual experiments to examine the claim that cultural learning and context significantly influence our use of and emotional reaction to musical sounds, infusing them with meaning and significance. We calculated the roughness time-profiles of a stylized improvisation on the Middle-Eastern mijwiz and of a traditional Bosnian ganga song, based on a previously-published roughness calculation model (Fulop and Fitz, 2006; Vassilakis, 2007), and compared them to musical tension/release patterns indicated by (a) a Lebanese mijwiz player and scholar, (b) a Bosnian ganga singer and scholar, and (c) Western-trained musicians. The tension/release patterns indicated by the Lebanese and Bosnian musicians match well the respective calculated auditory roughness patterns, suggesting that roughness is closely related to the non-Western musicians’ sense of musical tension. The patterns indicated by the Western-trained musicians indicate that roughness is just one of the cues guiding musical tension judgments, often overridden by tonal and temporal cues, and/or by expectations of tension/resolution raised by such cues.
The observed differences between the non-Western performers’ expressive intent and the Western-trained listeners’ interpretation support understanding musical tension/release as culture-specific concepts, guided by the equally culture-specific musical cues employed in their organization and experience.


Bigand, E. and Parncutt, R. (1999). “Perceiving musical tension in long chord sequences,” Psychol. Res. 62(4): 237-254.
Fulop, S.A. and Fitz, K. (2006). “Algorithms for computing the time-corrected instantaneous frequency (reassigned) spectrogram, with applications,” J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 119(1): 360-371.
Krumhansl, C.L. (2002). “Music: A Link Between Cognition and Emotion,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 11(2): 45-50.
Petroviç, A. (1977). Ganga: A Form of Traditional Rural Singing in Yugoslavia. Unpublished Dissertation. Belfast: University of Belfast; Department of Social Anthropology.
Racy, A.J. (1994). “A dialectical perspective on musical instruments: the East Mediterranean Mijwiz,” Ethnomusicology 38(1): 37-58.
Vassilakis, P.N. (2005). “Auditory roughness as means of musical expression,” Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology 12: 119-144. http://www.acousticslab.org/papers/SRE12.htm
Vassilakis, P.N. (2007). “SRA: A web-based research tool for spectral and roughness analysis of sound signals,” Proceedings of the 4th Sound and Music Computing (SMC) Conference: 319-325. Greece: National Kapodistrian University of Athens. http://musicalgorithms.ewu.edu/algorithms/roughness.html