Cry-olin: musical instruments convey human emotion by mimicking speech

Singers can convey a lot of emotion in the tone of their voices: a trembling sound might denote sadness, and a voice can also “smile”. But new research shows that non-vocal instruments can also use these tricks to convey emotion.

Described in a paper published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, a team of French researchers have identified three different vocal manipulations that convey similar emotions in instrumental music.

The researchers, who are based at Sorbonne Université, France, used computer models to simulate three different vocal inflections that are associated with emotions. These manipulations were:

  1. Smiling, which “modifies the shape and length of the vocal tract, shifting its resonating frequencies” according to the researchers’ paper
  2. Vocal tremor, which is associated with anxiety and negative emotions, and
  3. Vocal roughness, which is associated with screams

The researchers then digitally applied these inflections to music tracks that contained either solo singing, singing with a musical accompaniment, or violin with a musical accompaniment.

They played these tracks to 60 people (29 of whom were musicians and 31 of whom had no formal musical practice), and asked them to rate the emotional intensity of each sound.

Both the musician and non-musician participants identified the emotions the researchers were hoping to convey, in both the vocal and non-vocal tracks.

“Even violins can cry, or at least sound more positive and aroused when smiling, more negative and less aroused when trembling, and more negative when screaming,” write the researchers in their paper.

They add that this study adds further evidence to the idea that music can trigger emotional reactions by copying expressive voice inflections.

However, the researchers also stress that this isn’t necessarily the only way that people read the feelings of music, saying there are likely other cognitive and cultural factors at play.

“It is now important to understand how these mechanisms interact with each other to shape our emotional musical experiences,” write the authors.

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