Happy Western Music Sounds Happy All Around the World

By Eliza Strickland | March 23, 2009 3:23 pm

music MafaIsolated people living in the remote mountains of Cameroon have provided evidence that emotions expressed in Western music are universally recognizable, researchers say. In a new study, researchers found that members of the Mafa tribe could pick out happy, sad, and fearful tunes, despite having no exposure to Western music. Most likely the Mafa were picking up on the same “tone of voice” cues used in human speech, said study team member Stefan Koelsch…. “Western music mimics the emotional features of human speech, using the same melodic and rhythmic structures,” Koelsch said [National Geographic News].

Researchers say the Mafa’s ability to parse the emotions expressed in instrumental classical, jazz, and rock music adds evidence to the theory that music played some role in human evolution. Researchers have proposed numerous hypotheses about why humans make music, ranging from emotional communication to group solidarity. Other scientists, such as Harvard University linguist Steven Pinker, have countered that music is just “auditory cheesecake” with no real evolutionary significance. If music is the result of Darwinian selection, it’s likely that all members of the human species, regardless of their culture, will respond to it in similar ways [ScienceNOW Daily News].

For the study, published in Current Biology, lead researcher Thomas Fritz traveled into the Mandara mountains in northern Cameroon carrying his solar-powered laptop, which contained 42 short musical recordings. It took about a month for the wary Mafa, who traditionally reject Western ways, to agree to participate in the new study. The tide turned after Fritz took part in a marathon flute-playing ritual and then offered everyone millet beer that he had brought with him. “I got popular rather fast,” he says [Science News]. Fritz then picked 21 Mafa adults who said they had never listened to a radio, attended a church (where hymns are sometimes played), or heard Western music anywhere else.

Fritz asked his Mafa test subjects to listen to each piece of music and then indicate whether they thought it expressed happiness, sadness, or fear. He found that the Mafas’ ability to detect musical emotions was far better than chance for all three emotional states. Whereas by chance alone they would be expected to correctly identify “happy” music one-third of the time, the Mafas correctly picked it 60% of the time on average. They correctly categorized the other two musical emotions about half the time [ScienceNOW Daily News]. 

The experiment also proved another old hypothesis: that everyone is a critic. “We played them some extreme rock-and-roll from [1960s U.S. surf rockers] The Ventures,” Fritz said. “Some people told us it sounded like frogs croaking and was terrible, while others said, ‘Wow, this is good’” [National Geographic News].

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Image: Thomas Fritz

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Mind & Brain
  • http://freekarma.net John Lennon

    We are born with the innate ability to detect emotion whether it be through voice or facial expressions. Even babies can tell when someone is sad or happy.

  • Bob Snyder

    An innate ability? Or do we learn to associate facial expressions/tones of voice with emotions? I am not a linguist but when I read this article, I’m not too sure I’m impressed. Koelsch says that “most likely the Mafa were picking up on the same “tone of voice” cues used in human speech.” If the same tone of voice cues are used in most/all of human speech is it really surprising that humans were able to pick up on said cues? This is obviously over-simplifying the issues at hand however, questionable diction can lead to confusion over the results.

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    Some people say “hel-lo” with the same tones as a doorbell – a descending major third interval.

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