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Language of music may really be universal

March 20, 2009
Courtesy Cell Press
and World Science staff

Na­tive Af­ri­cans who have nev­er lis­tened to the ra­dio be­fore can none­the­less pick up on hap­py, sad, and fear­ful emo­tions in West­ern mu­sic, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port. The re­sult shows that the ex­pres­sion of those three bas­ic emo­tions in mu­sic can be un­iver­sally rec­og­nized, the re­search­ers said.

“These find­ings could ex­plain why West­ern mu­sic has been so suc­cess­ful in glob­al mu­sic dis­tri­bu­tion, even in mu­sic cul­tures that do not as strongly em­pha­size the role of emo­tion­al ex­pres­sion in their mu­sic,” said Thom­as Fritz of the Max Planck Institute for Hu­man Cog­ni­tive and Brain Sci­ences in Leip­zig, Ger­many.

The study ap­peared in the March 19 on­line is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Cur­rent Bi­ol­o­gy.

The ex­pres­sion of emo­tions is a bas­ic fea­ture of West­ern mu­sic, and the ca­pacity of mu­sic to con­vey emo­tion­al ex­pres­sions is of­ten re­garded as a pre­req­ui­site to its ap­precia­t­ion in West­ern cul­tures, the re­search­ers ex­plained. In oth­er mu­sical tra­di­tions, how­ev­er, mu­sic is of­ten ap­preciated for oth­er qual­i­ties, such as group co­ordina­t­ion in rit­u­als.

In the new stu­dy, Fritz, Ste­fan Koelsch, and their col­leagues wanted to find out wheth­er the emo­tion­al as­pects of West­ern mu­sic could be ap­preciated by peo­ple who had no pri­or ex­po­sure to it. Pre­vi­ous stud­ies had asked si­m­i­lar ques­tions about peo­ple with lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence with a par­tic­u­lar mu­sical form, for in­stance West­erners lis­ten­ing to Hin­du­sta­ni mu­sic, they said. But to really get at mu­sical un­iver­sals re­quires par­ti­ci­pants who are com­pletely naïve to West­ern mu­sic.

Fritz en­listed mem­bers of the Mafa, one of about 250 eth­nic groups in Cam­e­roon. He trav­eled to the far north of the Man­dara moun­tain ranges, where they live, with a lap­top and sun col­lec­tor to supply elec­tricity in his back­pack. 

Their stud­ies found that both West­ern and Mafa lis­ten­ers, who had nev­er be­fore heard West­ern mu­sic, could rec­og­nize emo­tion­al ex­pres­sions of hap­pi­ness, sad­ness, and fear in the mu­sic more of­ten than would be ex­pected by chance. 

How­ev­er, they re­ported that the Mafa showed con­si­der­able vari­abil­ity in their per­for­mance, with two of 21 study par­ti­ci­pants per­form­ing at chance lev­el. Both groups re­lied on si­m­i­lar char­ac­ter­is­tics of mu­sic to make those calls; both Mafas and West­erners re­lied on tem­po­ral cues and on mode for their judg­ment of emo­tion­al ex­pres­sions, al­though this pat­tern was more marked in West­ern lis­ten­ers.

By ma­ni­pu­lat­ing mu­sic, the re­search­ers al­so found that both West­ern lis­ten­ers and Af­ri­can lis­ten­ers find orig­i­nal mu­sic more pleas­ant than al­tered ver­sions. That pref­er­ence is probably due in part to the in­creased dis­so­nance of the ma­ni­pu­lated tunes, the in­vest­i­gators spe­cu­lated.

“These emo­tion­al ex­pres­sions con­veyed by the West­ern mu­sical ex­cerpts can be un­iver­sally rec­og­nized,” the re­search­ers wrote, “si­m­i­lar to the largely un­iver­sal rec­og­ni­tion of hu­man emo­tion­al fa­cial ex­pres­sion and emo­tion­al prosody.” Pros­o­dy refers to the rhythm, stress, and in­tona­t­ion of con­nect­ed speech.


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Native Africans who have never listened to the radio before can nonetheless pick up on happy, sad, and fearful emotions in Western music, according to a new report. The result shows that the expression of those three basic emotions in music can be universally recognized, the researchers said. “These findings could explain why Western music has been so successful in global music distribution, even in music cultures that do not as strongly emphasize the role of emotional expression in their music,” said Thomas Fritz of the Max-Planck-Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. The study appeared in the March 19 online issue of the research journal Current Biology. The expression of emotions is a basic feature of Western music, and the capacity of music to convey emotional expressions is often regarded as a prerequisite to its appreciation in Western cultures, the researchers explained. In other musical traditions, however, music is often appreciated for other qualities, such as group coordination in rituals. In the new study, Fritz, Stefan Koelsch, and their colleagues wanted to find out whether the emotional aspects of Western music could be appreciated by people who had no prior exposure to it. Previous studies had asked similar questions about people with little experience with a particular musical form, for instance Westerners listening to Hindustani music, they said. But to really get at musical universals requires participants who are completely naïve to Western music. Fritz enlisted members of the Mafa, one of about 250 ethnic groups in Cameroon. He traveled to the far north of the Mandara mountain ranges, where they live, with a laptop and sun collector to supply electricity in his backpack. Their studies found that both Western and Mafa listeners, who had never before heard Western music, could recognize emotional expressions of happiness, sadness, and fear in the music more often than would be expected by chance. However, they reported that the Mafa showed considerable variability in their performance, with two of twenty-one study participants performing at chance level. Both groups relied on similar characteristics of music to make those calls; both Mafas and Westerners relied on temporal cues and on mode for their judgment of emotional expressions, although this pattern was more marked in Western listeners. By manipulating music, the researchers also found that both Western listeners and African listeners find original music more pleasant than altered versions. That preference is probably explained in part by the increased sensory dissonance of the manipulated tunes. “These emotional expressions conveyed by the Western musical excerpts can be universally recognized,” the researchers wrote, “similar to the largely universal recognition of human emotional facial expression and emotional prosody.” Prosody refers to the rhythm, stress, and intonation of connected speech.