Emotions in music are universally recognised

Here in Britain, we all know an up-beat summer tune when we hear one, but what about other parts of the world? Perhaps our culture’s summer anthem would sound to others like a soulless dirge. In fact a new study suggests this isn’t the case at all. Echoing the way that the same basic facial expressions of emotion are recognised the world over, psychologists have reported new evidence that emotions in music are also universally recognised.

Thomas Fritz and colleagues played samples of computer-generated piano music to members of the culturally isolated Mafa tribe of Cameroon as well as to Western participants. The music had been specifically designed to convey either happiness, sadness or fear by careful manipulation of mode, tempo, pitch range, tone density and rhythmic regularity, according to Western conventions.

The tribes-people had never before heard Western music and yet they matched the musical samples to the appropriate (according to Western convention) pictures of facial emotional expressions, with an accuracy significantly above chance performance. Analysis of their ratings showed that both they and Western participants relied on the same cues to make their judgements: for example, pieces with higher tempo were more likely to be rated as happy, whereas lower tempo prompted ratings of fear.

A second experiment provided evidence for the universality of musical enjoyment. This time the researchers played either Western or traditional Mafa music to Mafa tribes-people and Westerners. Crucially, they played either unaltered versions of the music or “spectrally manipulated” versions. This manipulation altered the timing of the music to make it sound more dissonant or lacking in harmony. The tribes-people and the Westerners both preferred the unaltered versions of both the Mafa and Western music.

Does the universality of musical emotional recognition mean that music acts as a universal language of human emotion? Not so fast. In a supplementary discussion available free online, the researchers pointed out that Mafa music doesn’t convey as many different emotions as Western music, thus undermining the idea of music as a universal language. “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,” they said.

ResearchBlogging.orgFritz, T., Jentschke, S., Gosselin, N., Sammler, D., Peretz, I., Turner, R., Friederici, A., & Koelsch, S. (2009). Universal Recognition of Three Basic Emotions in Music. Current Biology, 19 (7), 573-576 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.02.058

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

2 thoughts on “Emotions in music are universally recognised”

  1. Clearly music and language are both involved with the expression of emotion. And music does a better job where differences in cultures are concerned. So if the language of music isn’t yet universal, it certainly has that potential.

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