"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Part of our reactions to music may be “universal”

Jan. 7, 2015
Courtesy of McGill University
and World Science staff

Wheth­er you’re a Pyg­my in the Con­go­lese rain­for­est or a big-­city hip­ster, cer­tain as­pects of mu­sic will tou­ch you in the same ways—but oth­ers very dif­fer­ent­ly, a study sug­gests.

“Peo­ple have been try­ing to fig­ure out for quite a while wheth­er the way that we re­act to mu­sic is based on the cul­ture that we come from or on some uni­ver­sal fea­tures of the mu­sic it­self,” said co-re­searcher Ste­phen McAdams of McGill Uni­vers­ity in Mont­real. “Now we know that it is ac­tu­ally a bit of both.”

The re­search­ers trav­eled deep in­to the rain­for­est to play mu­sic to a very iso­lat­ed peo­ple, the Mben­zélé Pyg­mies, who live with­out ra­di­o, tel­e­vi­sion or elec­tri­city. They then com­pared how the Mben­zélé re­sponded both to their own and to un­fa­mil­iar West­ern mu­sic, with how Cana­di­ans in down­town Mont­real re­sponded to the same pieces.

They found that the two groups were si­m­i­lar in their re­sponses to how ex­cit­ing or calm­ing they found the mu­sic to be—but dif­fered re­gard­ing wheth­er spe­cif­ic pieces made them feel good or bad. The Pyg­mies tended to rate ever­ything, even “s­cary” mu­sic, as mak­ing them hap­py, ac­cord­ing to the stu­dy, pub­lished in the re­search jour­nal Fron­tiers in Psy­chol­o­gy.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors played 19 short mu­sical ex­tracts (11 west­ern and 8 Pyg­my) of be­tween about 30 and 90 sec­onds to 40 Pyg­mies and an equal num­ber of Cana­di­ans. Be­cause all the Mben­zélé Pyg­mies sing reg­u­larly for cer­e­mo­ni­al pur­poses, the Cana­di­ans re­cruited for the study were all ei­ther am­a­teur or pro­fes­sion­al mu­sicians.

The West­ern mu­sic was de­signed to in­duce a range of emo­tions from calm to ex­cit­ed, and from hap­py to anx­ious or sad, and in­clud­ed both or­ches­tral mu­sic and ex­cerpts from three pop­u­lar films (Psy­cho, Star Wars, and Schindler’s List).

The Pyg­my pieces were all pol­y­phon­ic (mul­ti­ple-voiced) vo­cal pieces that are fairly up­beat and tend to be per­formed in cer­e­mo­ni­al con­texts to calm an­ger, or ex­press com­fort af­ter a death, for ex­am­ple, or to bid good for­tune be­fore a hunt­ing ex­pe­di­tion leaves the vil­lage, or even to pac­i­fy a cry­ing child.

The re­search­ers used emoti­cons with smil­ing or frown­ing faces at each end of a con­tin­u­um to get peo­ple to iden­ti­fy wheth­er the mu­sic made them feel good or bad. They al­so asked par­ti­ci­pants to rate wheth­er the mu­sic made them feel calm (close-eyed emoti­con) or ex­cit­ed (o­pen-eyed face). As par­ti­ci­pants lis­tened, var­i­ous mea­sure­ments were also tak­en such as heart rate, rate of respira­t­ion, and amount of sweat on the palms.

“Our ma­jor discovery is that lis­ten­ers from very dif­fer­ent groups both re­sponded to how ex­cit­ing or calm­ing they felt the mu­sic to be in si­m­i­lar ways,” said Hauke Egermann of the Tech­nis­che Uni­ver­sität in Ber­lin, who did part of the re­search while at McGill Uni­vers­ity in Mont­real. “This is probably due to cer­tain low-level as­pects of mu­sic such as tem­po (or beat), pitch (how high or low the mu­sic is on the scale) and tim­bre (tone col­or or qual­ity), but this will need fur­ther re­search.”

The main dif­fer­ence be­tween Pyg­my and Ca­na­di­an lis­ten­ers, the re­search­ers said, was that the Cana­di­ans de­scribed them­selves as feel­ing a much wid­er range of emo­tions as they lis­tened to the West­ern mu­sic than the Pyg­mies felt when lis­ten­ing to ei­ther their own or West­ern mu­sic. This is probably at­trib­ut­a­ble to the var­y­ing roles that mu­sic plays in each cul­ture.

“Nega­tive emo­tions are felt to dis­turb the har­mo­ny of the for­est in Pyg­my cul­ture and are there­fore dan­gerous,” said Na­tha­lie Fer­nan­do of the Uni­vers­ity of Mont­real’s Fac­ul­ty of Mu­sic, who has been col­lect­ing and doc­u­ment­ing Mben­zélé mu­sic-mak­ing for 10 years. “If a ba­by is cry­ing, the Mben­zélé will sing a hap­py song. If the men are scared of go­ing hunt­ing, they will sing a hap­py song—in gen­er­al mu­sic is used in this cul­ture to evac­u­ate all neg­a­tive emo­tions, so it is not really sur­pris­ing that the Mben­zélé feel that all the mu­sic they hear makes them feel good.”

* * *

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Whether you’re a Pygmy in the Congolese rainforest or a big-city hipster, certain aspects of music will touch you in the same ways—but others differently, a study suggests. “People have been trying to figure out for quite a while whether the way that we react to music is based on the culture that we come from or on some universal features of the music itself,” said co-researcher Stephen McAdams of McGill University in Montreal. “Now we know that it is actually a bit of both.” The researchers traveled deep into the rainforest to play music to a very isolated people, the Mbenzélé Pygmies, who live without radio, television or electricity. They then compared how the Mbenzélé responded both to their own and to unfamiliar Western music, with how Canadians in downtown Montreal responded to the same pieces. They found that the two groups were similar in their responses to how exciting or calming they found the music to be—but differed regarding whether specific pieces made them feel good or bad. The Pygmies tended to rate everything, even “scary” music, as making them feel happy, according to the study, published in the research journal Frontiers in Psychology. The investigators played 19 short musical extracts (11 western and 8 Pygmy) of between about 30 and 90 seconds to 40 Pygmies and an equal number of Canadians. Because all the Mbenzélé Pygmies sing regularly for ceremonial purposes, the Canadians recruited for the study were all either amateur or professional musicians. The Western music was designed to induce a range of emotions from calm to excited, and from happy to anxious or sad, and included both orchestral music and excerpts from three popular films (Psycho, Star Wars, and Schindler’s List). The Pygmy pieces were all polyphonic (multiple-voiced) vocal pieces that are fairly upbeat and tend to be performed in ceremonial contexts to calm anger, or express comfort after a death, for example, or to bid good fortune before a hunting expedition leaves the village, or even to pacify a crying child. The researchers used emoticons with smiling or frowning faces at each end of a continuum to get people to identify whether the music made them feel good or bad. They also asked participants to rate whether the music made them feel calm (close-eyed emoticon) or excited (open-eyed face). As the participants listened to the music, various measurements were taken (such as heart rate, rate of respiration, and quantity of sweat on the palms) to give researchers a more complete picture of the participants’ responses to what they were hearing. “Our major discovery is that listeners from very different groups both responded to how exciting or calming they felt the music to be in similar ways,” said Hauke Egermann of the Technische Universität in Berlin but did part of the research at McGill University in Montreal. “This is probably due to certain low-level aspects of music such as tempo (or beat), pitch (how high or low the music is on the scale) and timbre (tone color or quality), but this will need further research.” The main difference between Pygmy and Canadian listeners, the researchers said, was that the Canadians described themselves as feeling a much wider range of emotions as they listened to the Western music than the Pygmies felt when listening to either their own or Western music. This is probably attributable to the varying roles that music plays in each culture. “Negative emotions are felt to disturb the harmony of the forest in Pygmy culture and are therefore dangerous,” said Nathalie Fernando of the University of Montreal’s Faculty of Music, who has been collecting and documenting Mbenzélé music-making for 10 years. “If a baby is crying, the Mbenzélé will sing a happy song. If the men are scared of going hunting, they will sing a happy song—in general music is used in this culture to evacuate all negative emotions, so it is not really surprising that the Mbenzélé feel that all the music they hear makes them feel good.”