Study suggests that some emotional responses to music are universal

Do rainforest tribes react in the same way as city dwellers to the music of Star Wars?

Listening to music
Published: January 9, 2015 at 2:20 pm

A recent study into the universal appeal of music finds common ground in the positive emotional responses between people of very different cultures.


Researchers from Canada and Germany have been measuring the responses of people when they hear Western music, including well-known film scores, to see if there are any shared emotional reactions.

40 volunteers from Montreal and 40 Mbenzélé Pygmies from the remote Congo rainforest, were each played 19 short musical extracts. These included 11 from Western culture, including orchestral film scores such as John Williams’s Star Wars and Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho, with the remaining extracts taken from the ceremonial music of Pygmy culture.

After each extract, the participants were each asked to report whether each piece of music made them feel good or bad. They were asked to choose from a range of emotions, including happy, sad, anxious, excited, calm and angry. They also had their heart rate, respiration and amount of sweat on their palms measured.

The team found that although the two groups felt differently about whether the pieces made them feel good or bad, they did agree on which pieces made them feel calm or excited.

The researchers believe that where differences occurred – particularly with negative emotional reactions – this is explained by the different roles that music plays within each culture. ‘Negative emotions are felt to disturb the harmony of the forest in Pygmy culture and are therefore dangerous,’ says Nathalie Fernando, of the Faculty of Music at the University of Montreal. ‘If the Mbenzélé 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.’

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, the researchers were encouraged to find common ground. ‘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,’ says Dr Hauke Egermann, of Technische Universität Berlin. ‘This is probably due to certain low-level aspects of music such as tempo, pitch and timbre, but this will need further research.’

The joint study, conducted by researchers from Canada’s McGill University and the University of Montreal and Germany’s Technische Universität Berlin, has been been published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.


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