When it comes to music, not all cultures share the same emotional associations

Most of us have deep emotional reactions to music, which is a central part of human cultures around the world. But our ideas about what makes music sound happy or sad are not universal, suggests new research published today in PLoS One.

The Australian-led study mainly focused on differences in people’s emotional perceptions of music in major and minor keys. In Western cultures, music in a major key is almost universally perceived as happy, and music in a minor key as sad. Transposing a melody from major to minor seems to instantly introduce a mournful or ominous feel, as demonstrated by this rendition of the “Happy birthday” song.

However, the study found that these emotional associations were not shared by some remote communities in Papua New Guinea (PNG) who had little exposure to Western music.

“The most important finding of the study is that the degree of familiarity with major and minor music plays a large role in people attributing happiness to major and sadness to minor,” says Eline Smit, who led the study as part of her PhD at Western Sydney University.

For the new study, Smit and her colleagues investigated emotional associations of major and minor keys in people living in Sydney and in several villages in Uruwa River Valley in PNG. The valley is only accessible via small plane or multi-day hike, and the villages have similar musical traditions but varying levels of exposure to Western-style music.

The researchers played various recordings pairing one major and one minor melody or cadence (a series of chords) to the participants, who were asked to indicate which tune made them feel happy. 

An example of a recording played to research participants in the study. The musical samples are preceded by the word “ingguk” (one) or “yoi” (two). In this example, the first music sample is in a major key and the second in a minor key. Media courtesy Eline Smit.

“Western listeners and the PNG groups exposed to Western music were more likely to say the major cadence or melody was the happy one,” Smit explains. That is, these groups were likely to say that the first melody in the example above sounded happy.

“However, the PNG group with minimal exposure to Western music showed no preference for choosing major as the happy cadence or melody,” Smit continues. “They were just as likely to choose the minor version.”

Another example of a recording from the study. In this example, the first music sample is in a minor key and the second in a major key. Media courtesy Eline Smit.

Smit, who is also a trained classical pianist, became interested in the relationship between music and emotions during her PhD. Her research focuses on people’s emotional responses to unfamiliar musical systems.

“This study has shown some more insight into the role of the degree of familiarity on having particular emotional responses to music, but this does not mean that there are not any universal responses,” she says. “For the future, it would be interesting to further disentangle the impact of prior exposure and familiarity on responses to music.”

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