Music Hath Charms . . . Universally

If you play the Village People’s YMCA to natives of Borneo, will they feel energized and upbeat? If you play a dirge for people from deepest Amazonia, will they feel blue? If you play the thumping beat that announces the arrival of the killer in a slasher movie, will someone who has never heard it before feel scared?

Conveying emotions is one of the key qualities (and, indeed, purposes) of Western music, in contrast to music from cultures whose purpose is more to coordinate group activity. So it had been an open question whether people from non-Western cultures who had never heard its music would respond to it the way Westerners do. If the results from a new study published in Current Biology stand up, the answer is a resounding yes: Africans who had never even listened to a radio were able to identify various pieces of Western music as happy, sad, or fearful, report scientists led by Thomas Fritz and Stefan Koelsch of the Max-Planck-Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. That, said Fritz, “could explain why Western music has been so successful . . . even in music cultures that do not as strongly emphasize the role of emotional expression in their music.”

For the study, Fritz sought out members of the Mafa ethnic group in the Mandara mountain range of Cameroon. (The region is so remote, he had to carry a solar collector to supply electricity for his laptop.) He found 21 Mafas who said they had never listened to a radio, attended a church (where they might have heard Western music), or heard Western music any other place. He played recorded piano pieces composed by two colleagues, Isabelle Peretz and Nathalie Gosselin of the University of Montréal, to sound happy, sad, or fearful, and then, back in Germany, played the same pieces for 20 Germans, and asked his volunteers which of the three emotions the music conveyed.

If the Mafas had been merely guessing, they would have gotten it right one-third of the time. But they were right 60% of the time when trying to classify “happy” music, and half the time with “sad” and “fearful” music. The Westerners scored 100% on happy music and just over 80% with sad or fearful. Two of the 21 Mafa did no better than chance, but the others did significantly better. “Both Mafa and Western listeners showed an ability to recognize the three basic emotional expressions tested in this study from Western music above chance level,” the scientists write. “This indicates that these emotional expressions conveyed by the Western musical excerpts can be universally recognized, similar to the largely universal recognition of human emotional facial expression and emotional prosody.”

Play on.