Music’s emotional universe

What song makes you feel sad every time you hear it? Is there a particular song or songs that you use to get yourself pumped and energised for parties or perhaps even big moments at work? Are your friends similarly affected by those songs? Sure, there is room for differences in musical taste, otherwise how could we explain Justin Bieber’s apparent career, but it is also undeniable that some songs have an emotional quality that we all recognise. The question for psychologists and anthropologists has been whether the emotional message of music is culturally specific or whether a piece of music will elicit the same emotions in whoever hears it wherever they come from. A new study seems to suggest that music does have emotional elements that transcend culture.

The study was done using people who live in Montreal, Canada and people from the Congo rainforest. The representatives of the Congo were Mbenzélé Pygmies who live a very different life to the Montreal folk as the Mbenzélé have no access to electricity, television, or radio.

For the study all of the people listened to musical excerpts that lasted 30-90 seconds. There were 19 musical pieces in all, 11 were Western (including movie themes such as Star Wars, Psycho, and Schindler’s List) and eight were Pygmy vocal pieces.

Since the Mbenzélé are accustomed to singing during ceremonies to make the comparison more equitable the researchers chose Montreal people who were amateur or professional musicians. After listening to the pieces each person was asked to report how that music made them feel by selecting from a range of emoticons depicting happiness, sadness, anxiety, excitement, calmness, or anger. Additionally, the researchers measured heart rate, respiration rate, and palm sweatiness to gain an objective measure of emotional response.

Despite obvious cultural differences both groups showed similar reactions to how exciting or calming they found a piece of music to be. So there are definite cross-cultural emotional responses probably due to tempo, pitch or tone.

However, they did find that the Canadians reported a wider range of emotions when listening to Western music and the Mbenzélé reported more positive emotions regardless of which style of music they listened to. This would likely be the case as in Mbenzélé culture negative emotions are felt to disturb the harmony of the forest and singing is used to banish those negative emotions. This suggests that there are also definite cultural influences arising from the role music plays in a culture that impact how music makes us feel.

In the end then, as with so much in life, the conclusion here is that it is “a bit of both”; music’s emotional effects at once transcend culture and are determined by culture. Someone once said (or sang) that they would like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony and given the various negativities that are around at the moment, maybe a global choir class would not be a bad idea.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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