Music speaks universal language, new study confirms

March 20th, 2009 - 12:00 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, March 20 (IANS) People unfamiliar with western music can pick up happy, sad or fearful emotions when they hear it for the first time, a new study has found.
The result shows that the expression of those three basic emotions in music can be universally recognised, said researchers who carried out the study.

“These findings could explain why western music has been so successful in global music distribution, even in music cultures that do not as strongly emphasise the role of emotional expression in their music,” said Thomas Fritz of the Max-Planck-Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

Fritz, Stefan Koelsch and their colleagues wanted to find out whether the emotional aspects of western music could be appreciated by people who had no prior exposure to it.

Previous studies had asked similar questions about people with little experience with a particular musical form, for instance westerners listening to Hindustani music, they said. But to really get at musical universals requires participants who are completely new to western music.

Fritz enlisted members of the Mafa, one of about 250 ethnic groups in Cameroon. He travelled to the extreme north of the Mandara mountain ranges, where they live, with a laptop and sun collector to supply electricity in his backpack.

The study showed that Mafa listeners, who had never before heard western music, could recognise emotional expressions of happiness, sadness and fear in the music more often than would be expected by chance.

“These emotional expressions conveyed by the western musical excerpts can be universally recognised, similar to the largely universal recognition of human emotional facial expression and emotional prosody,” the study authors wrote. Prosody refers to the rhythm, stress, and intonation of connected speech.

These findings were published online in Thursday’s issue of Current Biology.

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