‘Happy’ and ‘Sad’ Music Differs Across Cultures (Culture)

Whether they make us feel happy or sad, songs inspire emotions in all of us. New research by Durham Music experts has shown that what you feel could depend on your cultural background.

When we listen to tunes, we rely heavily on memory for the body of music we’ve heard all our lives.

Durham researchers now believe they have cracked the code behind how music is emotionally perceived across cultures.

Kalash tribe participate in the sha’ghayak dance © Durham University

The way you make me feel

They found 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 cultural background.

People from the UK and two tribes in remote Northwest Pakistan listened to a selection of real and artificial music, including their own, and evaluated them on their emotional content.

Durham team were interested in exploring how people assessed which songs they saw as happy or sad and how it related to their cultural upbringing.

Because I’m happy

They found that the emotions Western cultures tie to specific music do not apply to people unexposed to it.

Outside of Western culture, the emotional links between happy and sad and major and minor music were quite different, with solemn ceremonies being undertaken to music that Western cultures would perceive as “cheerful”.

Unpleasant no matter your background

The findings also provide insights into intriguing cultural variations of how Western-style harmonisations are perceived across cultures and also striking similarities.

It turns out that harmony alone can influence how music makes you feel, but only if it taps into your cultural background.

However, acoustic roughness, an important phenomenon which typically renders sounds unattractive for Western listeners, influenced the expression of anger regardless of participants’ backgrounds.

The research was funded by a COFUND/Marie Curie scholarship, and further supported by Durham University’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities Pro-Vice-Chancellor’s award.

Reference: Athanasopoulos G, Eerola T, Lahdelma I, Kaliakatsos-Papakostas M (2021) Harmonic organisation conveys both universal and culture-specific cues for emotional expression in music. PLoS ONE 16(1): e0244964. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0244964 https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0244964

Provided by Durham University

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