The universality of music: Cross-cultural comparison, the recognition of emotions, and the influence

It has long been debated which aspects of music perception are universal and which are specific to a specific musical culture. A recent paper, "Universal Recognition of Three Basic Emotions in Music" by T. Fritz, S. Jentschke, N. Gosselin, D. Sammler, I. Peretz, R. Turner, A. Friederici, S. Koelsch in Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 7, Pages 573-576 – freely available here) reports a cross-cultural study with participants from the Mafa tribe in Northern Cameroon and participants, each group being ignorant of the musical tradition of the other (here is an example of Mafa music). Results show that the Mafas recognized happy, sad, and scared/fearful Western music excerpts above chance, suggesting that the expression of these basic emotions in Western music can be recognized universally.



"The Mafa flutes consist of two functional components, a resonance body made out of forged iron and a mouthpiece crafted from a mixture of clay and wax. The flute is an open tube which is blown like a bottle, and has a small hole at its bottom end with which the degree to which the tube is opened or closed can be controlled. The depicted set of Mafa flutes is ‘‘refined'' with a rubber band."


The recognition of emotional expressions conveyed by the music of other cultures had been experimentally investigated only in three previous studies. These studies aimed at indentifying cues that transcend cultural boundaries, and the authors made an effort to include listeners with little prior exposure to the music presented (e.g., Westerners listening to Hindustani music).



Although these three studies have significantly enhanced our understanding of how cultural experience may influence music perception, participants had been exposed to mass media and thus also probably to emotional cues of the other musical tradition (for example, through film music).



Here, Experiment 1 investigated the ability to recognize three basic emotions (happy, sad, scared/fearful) as expressed in Western music. Results show that the Mafas recognized happy, sad, and scared/fearful Western music excerpts above chance, indicating that the expression of these basic emotions in Western music can be recognized universally. Both Mafas and Westerners relied on temporal cues and on mode for their judgment of emotional expressions. For the tempo, they were more likely to classify pieces with higher tempo as happy and pieces with lower tempo as scared/fearful, whereas for sad pieces, no correlation with tempo was observed. The categorization of pieces was also significantly influenced by the mode of the piece, in both groups. 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/fearful.

The authors explain :

"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 such as emotional prosody: emotional prosody is mimicked by Western music as a means of emotional expression, and it has also previously been shown that emotional prosody can be recognized universally. This interpretation is consistent with the notion that similar emotion-specific acoustic cues are used to communicate emotion in both speech and music."

Note that people are also able to recognize emotions in remote cultural dance traditions (Cognitive Daily has a very good post on how westerners can recognize nine primary emotion recognition in Indian Classical dance). And I can't help sharing the video of the musician Bobby McFerrin demonstrating the musical instinct of ordinary people.


World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale from World Science Festival on Vimeo.

As he says, his shown works everywhere but again the best evidence in favour of the universality of some cognitive capacity is cross species comparison. And there it is on Youtube!


(More about Snowball and the "Experimental Evidence for Synchronization to a Musical Beat in a Nonhuman Animal" by Aniruddh D. Patel, John R. Iversen, Micah R. Bregman,  and Irena Schulz in Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 10, 827-830, 30 April 2009 here)

A final anthropological note: Some anthropologist may deplore the psychologists' focus on universality. And they may be right. Once you have demonstrated that some feature of a cultural phenomenon like music is universal, you still have to explain the extraordinary variety of its other aspects. But the authors of this cross-cultural study are well aware of this variety. They write in the supplemental material:

"Although some of the data aquired in Experiment 1 may be interpreted as corroborating the idea of music as a medium to universally mediate emotion, a possible absence of a variety of emotional expressions in Mafa music suggests a different interpretation. If music were in its essence indeed a universal language of emotions, why does Mafa music seems to not express a comparable variety of emotions as Western music? The appropriate answer to this is that although emotional expressions in music are perceived universally, this may not be the principal function of music (as already pointed out by Hanslick in his 1854 essay). Despite the observed universals of emotional expression recognition one should thus be cautious to conjure the idea of music as a universal language of emotion, which is partly a legacy of the period of romanticism."

So this study of the universality of emotion recognition in music leavesus with avery interesting anthropological question: Why do some musical styles use emotions while others do not? Any answer?

(Thanks to Valérian Chambon, Coralie Chevallier, Nicolas Claidière and Robin Dunbar for bringing these articles and videos to my attention.)

1 Comment

  • comment-avatar
    ralph kirschner 28 December 2009 (14:41)

    I wish I knew what Bobby McFerrin means by “everywhere” in the video when he says “audiences everywhere” respond to his hopping game. I read recently (I forget where) that the arrangement of intervals in musical keys seems or at least is postulated to reflect a feature of the brain. Forgive me for not knowing exactly in what way, or who said this. The interesting thing to me, as a working musician, is how it, er, plays out. I grew up in two musical idioms, the regular western major/minor one, and the blues-based pentatonic one of rock. So far so standard. But for two years now I have been listening, playing, and composing in middle eastern idioms, mostly “arabesk”. This isn’t quite arabic or makam, but you hear alot of it in Arab and Turkish pop music. Unlike both Western and Pentatonic blues scales & modes, Arabesk has three possible note interval lengths (or four if you have an instrument that can do half-steps). So it is a trinary system. (Specifically, in western music note intervals can be one or two steps. Pentatonic can be (generally) two or three steps. Arabesk can be one, two, or three steps. I am not talking about classical arab or turkish makamaat with the half steps, I am talking about the modern songs you hear on the radio, which is often enough played with western instruments that won’t do half-steps) Notably, unlike Western and Pentatonic Blues, Arabesk is relatively ambiguous. Song modes feel “slippery” to play, melodies frequently veer away from the notes in the mode, very often solos in two or more modes are possible for a given song, chords (I know, I know, there aren’t supposed to be chords in eastern music, except there are) have a distinct preference for ambiguity (i.e. “5” chords that are neither major not minor) Also, to my ear at least, the arabesk idiom has two levels of wrong-soundingness, i.e. some things sound very wrong indeed while others sound only slightly wrong and perhaps even interesting, where the western idiom has just right or wrong with no gradation of wrongness. This is all through the filter of my basic westernness so may just be due to my perception, but I am starting to wonder whether the 3 interval length system of arabesk scales has an innate tension that remains unresolved, due to a mental wiring for 2 interval lengths? And that this unresolved tension allows more “flexibility”? This is all my individual perception as a “user” and entirely empirical and no doubt simplistic; some of you might have much deeper insights into it.