Can music create intercultural understanding? According to Madonna (and psychological research), it can!

In my last blog, I argued that Madonna’s lyric of ‘music makes the people come together’ has a scientific basis. There are scientific studies that support the claim that music indeed increases cooperation and, thus, brings people together. But, as you might remember, the second line in the chorus of Madonna’s song is: ‘Music mix the bourgeoisie and the rebel’. In this blog, I will discuss whether she is citing the literature correctly or not.

First of all, how should we actually understand this nicely harmonized lyric in scientific terms? The three main concepts that need to be defined are: rebel, bourgeoisie, and mixing. According to the dictionary, a rebel is a person who resists, disobeys or even defies established authority figures and generally accepted social conventions. A bourgeoisie on the other hand is your typical ‘middle class’ person, who is even labelled as too concerned about wealth, possessions and respectable behavior and a tendency to mediocrity. These two ‘types’ of people are likely to have a different set of values. In other words, there is a ‘cultural difference’ between them that needs to be bridged in order for ‘mixing’ (intercultural understanding) to occur.

Can music really bring people with such divergent values together as well? Unfortunately, data suggests that this might only partly be the case.

First of all, we know from the similarity-attraction literature (Byrne, 1971) that music will have an uphill battle to fight in order to bring such highly dissimilar individuals together. According to this theory, interpersonal attraction is much more likely to occur between individuals who are similar in characteristics such as physical appearance, psychological characteristics, and life goals (i.e., values) than between highly dissimilar people. Researchers have started to investigate whether different preferences in values go along with different music preferences. They have found that this is indeed the case and that music preferences communicate information about the values that its listeners hold.

In an experimental design, Boer and colleagues (2011) found that fans on rock, metal, hip-hop and electronic music websites rate a target person who shares their music preference more favorably than a target person who has a different music preference. With the similarity-attraction theory in mind, this finding is not so surprising. The study however revealed that the main reason for the link between a shared music preference and liking of this person is due to the cue that a person’s music preference gives about their value orientation. Since value orientations provide information about what this person finds important and guiding in the way they choose to live their life, this cue provides information about the person that reaches far beyond their preference for acoustic over electric beats. Therefore, we could argue that it is highly unlikely that our rebel and bourgeoisie would like the same kind of music, let alone care for each other very much.

While these findings paint a somewhat dim picture of the ability for music to bring highly diverse individuals together, the same findings can be interpreted in the other direction as well. If it is true that people who share the same music preference are likely to share a common set of values, sharing this taste in music might be able to bring people together, who could be highly dissimilar in other domains of life. 

In our globalizing world, cues that inform us about significant values of people we don’t know enable us to forge connections. Music is an important example of such a cue.

After all, as long as it is possible to go online, any German teenager can for example visit Lady Gaga’s little monsters fan forum and interact with someone who might be eating a curry on the streets of Bombay. The fact that both are attracted to the extravagance that is Lady Gaga, says something about which guiding principles in life they are drawn to. This similarity is likely to create a sense of commonality between them, despite the fact that they might be highly dissimilar in terms of traditional categories like social status, ethnicity, gender and mother tongue. A shared appreciation for not just Gaga’s rather explicit messages of non-conformity, androgyny, equality and anti-institutionalized religion, but any other music genre (Rentfrow & Gosling, 2003) can bring two highly-dissimilar people together in a new and meaningful way.

In conclusion, scientific data suggests that there is truth to the claim that music can foster intercultural understanding. Unfortunately, it is somewhat more likely that rebels mix with other rebels at rebellious music festivals and bourgeoisie with other bourgeoisies and more mainstream festivals. However, if highly dissimilar people share a love for a certain type of music, it is likely that it is exactly the music that will be able to make them ‘mix’.


Boer, D., Fischer, R., Strack, M., Bond, M. H., Lo, E., & Lam, J. (2011). How shared preferences in music create bonds between people: values as the missing link. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(9), 1159–71. doi:10.1177/0146167211407521

Byrne, D. E. (1971). The attraction paradigm (Vol. 11). Academic Press.

Rentfrow, P. J., & Gosling, S. D. (2003). The do re mi’s of everyday life: The structure and personality correlates of music preferences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(6), 1236–1256. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.84.6.1236