Music without a sound

There’s more to our appreciation of music than its sound, according to an Australian study published in the journal PLOS ONE. It found that people can have emotional reactions to music based solely on its genre.

“This is one of the first studies which tells us that how we emotionally respond to music might not be related to musical features, as has long been suggested, but to pre-conceived ideas we have about the culture related to the music,” says lead author Marco Susino from Flinders University.

Susino, who is also a visiting fellow at New York’s Juilliard School, has worked and played with musicians in a vast range of cultural contexts across four continents. “I have always been fascinated by the power of music, in terms of how it makes us feel and how it can trigger emotions in us,” he says. “Music can make us cry and weep, but also elate with joy.

“Throughout my career, I found that people’s reactions to music were at times wildly different, and I always wondered why. If we listen to the same music, how is it that it can trigger such different emotional reactions?”

As Susino ventured into research, he discovered that theories about music and emotions tend to focus on its sound. “Yet to me this seemed limiting,” he says. “What if it has nothing to do with the music at all?”

To disentangle this, Susino and Emery Schubert, from the University of New South Wales, recruited 276 adult volunteers from Australia and Cuba.

Participants were given a short set of lyrics from real songs, with information on which genre of music they came from, and asked what sentiments came to mind when they read them. The eight genres included Japanese gagaku, Brazilian samba, heavy metal, pop, hip hop and western art opera.

There was a twist. Some participants were told the lyrics were taken from a genre that in reality wasn’t true. Others weren’t given any genre at all. Essentially, the lyrics were the same, but the genre label changed.

After controlling for familiarity and fandom, results showed that people’s emotional responses changed for some genres.

200318 sheet music
Credit: Tamari Dundua/Eyeem

When a set of lyrics was presented as Japanese gagaku, for instance, emotional responses were nearly always gentle while samba was associated with happiness, excitement and dancing. Heavy metal and hip hop, on the other hand, evoked anger.

Results suggest that on some occasions prejudice and stereotypes influence our emotional response to music, Susino says – even though the music and lyrics might be expressing something completely different.

People might hold a stereotype of Japanese culture as calm and spiritual, for instance, which could extend to perceptions of its music, even if the composer is conveying another emotion. Heavy metal and hip hop, on the other hand, tend to be stereotyped as rebellious and aggressive.

The researchers also found differences between Cuban and Australian participants which could reflect different biases and stereotypes between cultures. Cubans associated hip hop with violence and sadness, for instance, while Australians more frequently linked it to sadness, betrayal and longing.

The study has several interesting implications.

“Music has been used for music therapy and treatment, music cognition and music psychology research,” says Susino. “But, to find out that how someone feels in relation to music might have nothing to do with the music itself is remarkable.”

“The cross-cultural differences also bring into question the reliability of the well-known saying ‘music is a universal language’. When it comes to emotions, it does not look that way.”

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