‘Happy’ and ‘sad’ music may not be as universal as we thought

It is the pinnacle of the movie. The main character’s love interest is mortally wounded, their dog has run away and for some reason it is now raining. To drive home, the fact that it’s a heartbreaking moment, the music now plays in a somber minor key.

New research suggests there may be some in the audience who don’t find the score as emotionally impactful.

Experiments conducted by a team of scientists from Western Sydney University suggest that we may only experience music as joyful or depressing thanks to a history of global influences from dominant musical cultures.

From pop music to Hollywood soundtracks, harmonies and melodies typically resonate with a more upbeat, uplifting mood when the notes or chords progress in a manner described as major.

A tune that goes a bit lazily between crucial notes is described as a minor. It’s the sound of break-up songs, pensive moments during soap operas, and tear-jerking scenes in the movies.

The relationship between great progressions and positive feelings (and sad emotions with minor ones) is so pervasive in the Western world, it’s easy to assume that something fundamentally biological is going on.

However, the origin of this connection is a complete mystery. Some speculate that it may have something to do with a certain dissonance in minor tonality, such as an occasional half-step stairway to trip us up.

Alternatively, it may have something to do with an averaging of the pitches in a piece eliciting a more primary response, with the overall impression akin to vocalizations mimicking friend or foe.

If any of these hypotheses were true, the emotions of music should be universal experiences. However, several studies involving remote communities not exposed to much Western music have yielded mixed results.

In an effort to produce more definitive evidence about whether melodies touch our hearts in the same way regardless of musical exposure, the researchers behind this latest study explored remote areas of Papua New Guinea with music recordings consisting of major and minor cadences. minor. †

A total of 170 adults from the Uruwa River Valley were paid to participate in the study, listening to recorded music clips that varied in mean pitch, cadence, mode and timbre. All the participants had to do was listen to two of the samples and tell the researchers if they felt happy with one.

Tucked into the folds of a mountainous landscape, the region’s villages don’t exactly have easy access to Spotify.

The little influence of Western music they have had is largely woven into hymns by Lutheran missionaries, with the resulting songs known as “stringben” in the pidgin language.

With varying access to churches, virtually no direct exposure to Western musical traditions, and different customs when dealing with different types of music, the population offers a unique opportunity to test whether a difference in tonality produces a shared emotional experience.

As a countermeasure, the researchers also conducted the same study in a soundproofed room in Sydney, Australia. Virtually all 79 volunteers were regular listeners of Western music (apart from one more fan of Arabic music).

Based on what are known as Bayesian statistical inferences, the results strongly indicate that the self-reported emotional responses to the average pitch of a piece of music have more to do with previous exposure to Westernized music than anything more universal.

It is possible that the emotions imposed by the last few chords of a piece of music still have non-cultural origins, based on limitations in the evidence among the villagers in the Uruwa Valley.

Taken together, however, the results of the study show no indication that our shared response of happiness to major chords is buried in our biology.

How certain musical traditions were associated with emotional language remains to be resolved.

Humans and some of our closest relatives have been playing music for tens of thousands of years, if not much longer. We play it at funerals, at weddings, in storytelling, or when we are alone with our thoughts, making it hard to distinguish from its cultural background.

As our cultures evolve, so will our music.

This research was published in PLOS One

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