The concept of happy and sad music differs across cultures, study suggests

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Music is known to make people feel many different emotions, ranging from happy to sad, but new research suggests what someone might feel could depend on how they were raised.

A new study indicates that Western associations – in which music in a major key is judged as happy while minor key music is perceived as sad – is strongly influenced by the cultural background of the listeners.

Researchers from Durham University believe they have cracked the code behind how music is emotionally perceived across cultures.

When people listen to tunes, they rely heavily on their memory for the body of music they have heard throughout their lives.

Dr George Athanasopoulos, COFUND/Marie Curie junior research fellow in Durham University’s department of music, who conducted the fieldwork, said: “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.”

A sample of 169 participants from the UK and from two tribes in remote north-west Pakistan (Kalash and Khow) listened to a wide selection of real and artificial music, including their own, and evaluated them on their emotional content.

Researchers discovered that Western emotional concepts linked with specific modes of music do not apply to participants not exposed to that form of music.

They say this was particularly notable when other emotional cues, such as tempo, timbre (tone quality) and loudness, were kept constant.

At the same time, harmony alone can colour the emotional expression in music but only if it taps into the cultural connotations of the listener, researchers found.

According to the researchers, the findings provide insights not only into cultural variation regarding how Western-style harmonisations are perceived across cultures, but also similarities.

They noted that 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 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.

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