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How Music Can Fight Prejudice

New research from Portugal finds youngsters feel more positively toward members of an ethnic minority if they have learned songs from their culture.

The outpouring of hostility toward immigrants and refugees has reminded us that ethnocentrism remains a fact of life in both Europe and the United States. Combating it will require teaching a new generation to view members of different cultures as potential friends rather than threatening outsiders. But what mode of communication has the power to stimulate such a shift?

New research from Portugal suggests the answer may be music.

It reports schoolchildren around age 11 who learned about the music and culture of a faraway land expressed warmer feelings toward immigrants from that country than those who did not. What's more, those positive emotions were still evident three months after this exposure to the foreign culture.

"Music can inspire people to travel to other emotional worlds," writes a research team led by psychologist Felix Neto of the University of Porto. Their work suggests songs can serve as an emotional bridge between cultures, revealing feelings that are common to both.

Their study, published in the journal Psychology of Music, featured 229 Portuguese sixth graders, all living in greater Lisbon. Two-thirds came from blue-collar families.

The students began by filling out a survey in which they were presented with 10 personal traits—five positive (including "hard-working" and "honest") and five negative (including "stupid" and "lazy"). They were asked to pick those that applied to members of three ethnic groups common to the Lisbon area: Portuguese, Brazilian, or Cape Verdean people.

The researchers note that Brazilians are "in many respects similar to Portuguese," while Cape Verdeans are widely viewed as more different. Members of all three groups speak the same language.

For the next six months, half of the students took part in a specially designed "cross-cultural music education program." During the 20 sessions, each of which was 90 minutes long, they learned about Cape Verdean culture, and listened and sang to both Portuguese and Cape Verdean songs.

At the end of the program, all the students again filled out the survey in which they evaluated people of the three ethnicities.

Among those who took the class, "prejudice towards Cape Verdean people was reduced," the researchers report. "Attitudes towards other groups were not altered."

In contrast, prejudice did not drop among those who did not take the class. A follow-up three months later found the same pattern held for all of the youngsters, meaning the prejudice reduction for those who took the course had stuck.

Neto and his colleagues report their results are "very robust," adding that "teachers are important socialization agents."

They concede that the cultures' common language may have contributed to these positive results. More research will be needed to see if this could work with, say, English speakers and Arabic-speaking refugees.

Nevertheless, they conclude, their results suggest teachers, given the proper material and mandate, "may play a role in the reduction of many kinds of prejudice towards national groups."

There is compelling evidence that music originally took hold in the human imagination due to its ability to forge a common bond among members of primitive tribes. Given the resurgence of tribalism today, its capacity to promote harmony between people from different cultures is a happy irony indeed.