‘Sad’ songs like Chopin’s Funeral March only sound melancholic to Westerners, as study shows emotions in response to music vary depending on how you were raised
- Scientists played songs to volunteers in the UK and remote villages in Pakistan
- They were played a range of songs including specific cultural and artificial tunes
- They found emotion linked to major and minor chords was not a universal theme
A sad song like Chopin’s Funeral March is only melancholic if you grew up in the west, study claims, suggesting emotions in response to music vary by location.
Music is known to make people feel many different emotions, ranging from happy to sad, but new research suggests this is linked to where in the world you were raised.
Researchers from Durham University played volunteers from the UK and two tribes in remote parts of Pakistan a wide selection of real and artificially created music.
In the West music in a major key is judged as happy, while minor key music is perceived as sad – but this is strongly influenced by a listeners cultural background.
The new study found that outside Western cultural circles, those emotional connotations between happy and sad, and major and minor, music are irrelevant.
A sad song like Chopin’s Funeral March is only melancholic if you grew up in the west, study claims, suggesting emotions in response to music vary by location
Study author Dr George Athanasopoulos, said when we listen to tunes we rely heavily on our memory for the body of music we’ve heard all our lives.
‘Our research shows that, while certain aspects in music are considered as common across cultural boundaries, outside of Western cultural circles, the emotional connotations … can be quite different,’ the team wrote.
A sample of 169 participants from the UK and from two tribes in remote north-west Pakistan (Kalash and Khow) listened to a wide selection of real and artificial music.
Groups were asked to evaluate song samples – including some of their own culture music in the case of the tribes – on their emotional content.
Researchers discovered that Western emotional concepts linked with specific modes of music do not apply to participants not exposed to that form of music.
They say this was particularly notable when other emotional cues, such as tempo, timbre (tone quality) and loudness, were kept constant.
At the same time, harmony alone can colour the emotional expression in music but only if it taps into the cultural connotations of the listener, researchers found.
The findings provide insights not only into cultural variation regarding how Western-style harmonisations are perceived across cultures, but also similarities, they said.
Music is known to make people feel many different emotions, ranging from happy to sad, but new research suggests this is linked to where in the world you were raised
Study authors noted that acoustic roughness, an important acoustic phenomenon which typically renders sounds unattractive for Western listeners, influenced the expression of anger regardless of participants’ backgrounds.
Adding ‘this is particularly interesting as previous research demonstrated a link between roughness and anger in speech perception in Western listeners.’
With both speech and music appearing in every single human society, they add that it is remarkable to note the common impact of acoustic roughness across cultures not only in speech but also in music.
The findings have been published in the journal PLOS One.
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