'Happy' And 'Sad' Music Might Not Be Nearly as Universal as We Thought

It's the film's climax. The protagonist's love partner has died, their dog has escaped, and it is currently pouring. To emphasize how emotional this moment is, the music has been changed to a sad minor tone.

According to new research, certain people in the audience may not find the score as emotionally moving.

Experiments undertaken by a team of scientists from Western Sydney University reveal that humans may only perceive music as cheerful or gloomy due to a history of worldwide effects of dominating musical cultures.

Harmonies and melodies generally resonate with a more cheery, uplifting tone if their notes or chords evolve in a manner defined as major, from pop music to Hollywood soundtracks.

Minor refers to a melody that moves more slowly between significant notes. It's the sound of break-up songs, melancholy times in soap operas, and tear-jerker movie sequences.

The association between large progressions and pleasant sentiments (and sad emotions and small ones) is so pervasive in the Western society that it's easy to believe there's something essentially biological going on.

However, the roots of this link remain unknown. Some think that it might be due to a dissonance in minor tonality, similar to a staircase with the occasional half-step tossed in just to make us stumble.

Alternatively, it might be due to averaging the pitches in a piece eliciting a more primitive response, with the overall impression resembling vocalizations mimicking friend or foe.

If one of these ideas is correct, music's emotions should be universal experiences. Several studies involving isolated cultures that had not been exposed to much Western music, on the other hand, have had mixed findings.

The researchers behind this recent study went to distant parts of Papua New Guinea with music recordings consisting of cadences in major and minor keys in order to create more definite data on whether melodies pluck at our heart strings in the same manner regardless of musical experience.

The poll paid 170 individuals from the Uruwa River Valley to listen to recorded snatches of music that varied in mean pitch, cadence, mode, and timbre. All participants had to do was listen to two samples and tell the researchers which one made them happy.

The settlements in the region, tucked away in the folds of a mountainous environment, don't have easy access to Spotify.

What little Western music impact they have had is mostly weaved into Lutheran missionary hymns, with the resulting tunes called as'stringben' in the pidgin language.

With unequal access to churches, little direct exposure to Western music traditions, and distinct habits for engaging with music of all genres, the population offers a unique chance to investigate whether a variance in pitch produces a common emotional response.

As a precaution, the researchers repeated the experiment in a soundproof room in Sydney, Australia. Almost majority of the 79 volunteers listened to Western music on a regular basis (apart from one who was more a fan of Arabic music).

The findings, based on Bayesian statistical assumptions, clearly suggest that self-reported emotional responses to a piece of music's mean pitch have more to do with prior exposure to Westernized music than with anything more universal.

Based on information from the Uruwa Valley people, it is probable that the feelings evoked by the final few notes of a musical composition have a non-cultural basis.

However, when the study's findings are taken together, they provide little evidence that our shared reaction of enjoyment is a factor.
Taken together, the study's findings offer little evidence that our universal sensitivity to major chords is hidden in our DNA.

It is unclear how specific musical traditions were connected with emotional language.

Music has been played by humans and some of our closest ancestors for tens of thousands of years, if not much longer. We play it at funerals, weddings, while telling stories, or when we're alone with our thoughts, making its practice difficult to separate from its cultural context.

As our cultures evolve, so will our music.

This research was published in PLOS One.