How music makes us feel emotionally depends on how (or where) we were raised

DURHAM, England — Music can sound “happy” or “sad” to us depending on how we were raised, according to a recent study. Whether it makes us feel joyous, wistful, or melancholy, music elicits emotions in all of us, but research shows that what we might feel differs from culture to culture.

In western parts of the world, a major key is perceived as happy, while a minor key is perceived as sad. British Scientists report that this perception is strongly influenced by the cultural backgrounds of the listeners. They now believe they have cracked the code behind how music is emotionally perceived across cultures.

Junior research fellow Dr. George Athanasopoulos of Durham University in conducted fieldwork in the United Kingdom and Pakistan. “When we listen to tunes, we rely heavily on our memory for the body of music we’ve heard all our lives. Our research shows that, while certain aspects in music are considered as common across cultural boundaries, outside of Western cultural circles the emotional connotations between happy and sad and major and minor music can be quite different,” Athanasopoulos said in an interview, per South West News Service.

A total of 169 people from the U.K. and from two tribes in Kalash and Khow in remote northwestern Pakistan participated in the study. Participants listened to a wide selection of real and artificial music, including their own, and evaluated it on its emotional content.

Outside of Western cultural circles, the emotional connotations between happy and sad, and major and minor music are irrelevant, the findings reveal. Researchers discovered that Western emotional concepts linked with specific modes of music do not apply to participants unexposed to that form of music.

In particular, this applies when other emotional cues such as tempo, timbre, and loudness, are kept constant. At the same time, harmony alone can color the emotional expression in music, but only if it taps into the cultural connotations of the listener.

The research team wanted to explore how participants assessed the emotional connotations of Western and non-Western music and harmonization styles. They also wanted to know whether cultural familiarity within specific modes and genres, including major and minor, would consistently relate to an emotional response.

The findings provide insights not only into intriguing cultural variation regarding how Western-style harmonizations are perceived across cultures, but also striking similarities. Notably, acoustic roughness, an important acoustic phenomenon which typically renders sounds unattractive for Western listeners, influenced the expression of anger regardless of participants’ backgrounds.

Researchers say this is particularly interesting as previous research has demonstrated a link between roughness and anger in speech perception in the case of Western listeners. With both speech and music appearing in every single human society, they add that it is remarkable to note the common impact of acoustic roughness across cultures not only in speech but also in music.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.

South West News Service writer Laura Sharman contributed to this report.

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