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Mental Health Center

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Emotions Evoked by Music Are Universal

Study Shows Happy, Sad, and Fearful Emotions in Western Music Are Understood by Other Cultures
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 20, 2009 -- Three basic emotions evoked by Western music affect people everywhere, regardless of culture or habits, a new study shows.

People in Africa who've never listened to a radio can still pick up on happy, sad, and fearful emotions in Western music, researchers say in the journal Current Biology.

These emotions in music can be universally recognized, says Thomas Fritz of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. "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," Fritz says in a news release.

In some musical traditions, music is appreciated for qualities other than emotions, such as group coordination rituals, the researchers say.

Fritz and colleagues, including Stefan Koelsch of the University of Sussex, set out to determine whether the emotional aspects of Western music could be appreciated by people who had no prior knowledge of it.

They recruited members of the Mafa, one of about 250 ethnic groups in Cameroon, who were unfamiliar with Western music. The scientists concluded, after exposing the Mafa people to Western music, that the African listeners could pick up on emotional expressions of happiness, sadness, and fear more often than would have been expected by chance.

The researchers found that both Western and African listeners enjoyed original Western or Mafa music more, finding it more pleasant than music that had been manipulated, such as original music played with another version of a different pitch.

"Both Mafa and Western listeners showed an ability to recognize the three basic emotional expressions tested in this study (happy, sad, and scared/fearful) from Western music above chance level," the researchers say. "This indicates that these emotional expressions conveyed by the Western musical excerpts can be universally recognized, similar to the largely universal recognition of human emotional facial expression."

Westerners and Mafas alike were more likely to classify pieces with higher tempos as happy and songs with lower tempos as fearful or scared, the researchers say.

The mode of the music pieces was also significant. "Both Westerners and Mafas classified the majority of major pieces as happy, the majority of pieces with indefinite mode as sad, and most of the pieces in minor as scared," the researchers write. "The universal capacity to identify emotional expressions in Western music is presumably at least partly due to the universal capability to recognize nonverbal patterns of emotional expressiveness."

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