Happy and sad music may not be as universal as we thought

(ORDO NEWS) — This is the climax of the film. The protagonist’s love interest is mortally wounded, their dog has run away, and for some reason it’s raining. To emphasize that this is a heartbreaking moment, the music plays in a dark minor key.

New research suggests that there may be those in the audience for whom this music does not have such a strong emotional impact.

Experiments by a team of scientists at the University of Western Sydney show that we can only perceive music as joyful or depressing, thanks to a history of global influence from dominant music cultures.

From pop music to Hollywood soundtracks, harmonies and melodies tend to evoke a more cheerful, upbeat mood when their notes or chords develop in a major key.

A melody that develops a little more sluggishly between the crucial notes is described as a minor one. This is the sound of parting songs, thoughtful moments in TV shows and tear-squeezing scenes in movies.

The connection between major progressions and positive feelings (and sad emotions with minor ones) is so common in the Western world that it’s easy to assume that something fundamentally biological is going on.

However, the origin of this connection is a complete mystery. Some have speculated that it may be related to a certain dissonance in the minor key, like a staircase where half-steps appear from time to time to make us stumble.

Or it may be due to the averaging of the pitch in the piece, causing a more primitive reaction, where the overall impression is akin to a vocalization imitating friend or foe.

If one of these hypotheses is correct, then the emotion of music must be a universal experience. However, several studies involving remote communities that have not been influenced by Western music have produced mixed results.

In an effort to get a better idea of ​​whether melodies strike our heartstrings in the same way, regardless of musical experience, the scientists behind the latest study traveled to remote areas of Papua New Guinea with musical recordings of cadenzas in major and minor tones.

A total of 170 adults in the Uruva Valley were paid to participate in the study to listen to recorded pieces of music that differ in pitch, cadence, mode, and timbre. All the participants had to do was listen to two samples and tell the researchers which one made them feel happy.

The villages of this region, located in the folds of the mountainous landscape, do not have easy access to Spotify.

What little Western influence they have had is mostly woven into the hymns of the Lutheran missionaries, and the resulting songs are known as “stringben” in pidgin.

With varying access to churches, little or no exposure to Western musical traditions, and varying customs regarding the perception of different types of music, this population provides a unique opportunity to test whether differences in tone evoke shared emotional experiences.

As a countermeasure, the researchers conducted the same study in a soundproof room in Sydney, Australia. Almost all of the 79 volunteers were regular listeners of Western music (except for one who was more fond of Arabic music).

The results, based on so-called Bayesian statistical inference, strongly suggest that self-reported emotional reactions to the average pitch of a piece of music have more to do with previous exposure to Western music than anything more universal.

It is possible that the emotions evoked by the last chords of a piece of music are still of non-cultural origin, based on the limited data obtained among the inhabitants of the Uruwa Valley.

Taken together, however, the results of the study do not indicate that our overall happiness response to major chords is built into our biology.

The question of how certain musical traditions came to be associated with emotional language remains to be resolved.

Humans and some of our closest relatives have been playing music for tens of thousands of years, if not much longer. We play it at funerals, at weddings, during storytelling or when we are alone with our thoughts, so its practice is difficult to separate from the cultural background.

As our cultures evolve, so will our music.


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