Culture influences whether a musical note is perceived as happy or sad, study finds


People’s perception of a musical note as happy or sad is not universal but could be influenced by their culture, according to a new study.

The research, published on Thursday in the journal PLoS One, analysed the differences in people’s emotional perceptions of music in major and minor keys.

Music in a major key is almost universally perceived in western culture as happy and music in a minor key as sad.

But these emotional associations were not perceived in the same way by remote communities in Papua New Guinea (PNG), found scientists, including those from Western Sydney University in Australia.

The perception of major and minor notes by people living in Sydney was compared to the perception of those living in remotely accessible villages in the Uruwa River Valley in PNG.

Scientists played recordings pairing one major and one minor melody, or cadence, to participants who reported which tune made them feel happy.

“Participants listened to pairs of chords and melodies, varying in being major or minor and in their mean pitch height, and were asked to indicate which of the pair was the happy one,” tweeted study co-author Eline Smit.

The study was conducted on 170 participants and was repeated for 79 Australians, including 60 non-musicians and 19 musicians in Sydney.

Greater happiness was reported for major than minor in every community except the one with minimal exposure to western-like music.

“For the communities in PNG, we find strong evidence that greater happiness was reported for major than minor in every community except one: the community with the least exposure to western-like music,” Dr Smit said.

“For melodies, there is strong evidence that greater happiness was reported for those with higher mean pitch (major melodies) than those with lower mean pitch (minor melodies) in only one of the three PNG communities and in both Sydney groups,” she added.

The findings shed light on the role of familiarity to a certain culture on the basis of particular emotional responses to music.

“We do find convincing evidence that familiarity plays a large role in the association between major [notes] and happiness for both Sydney groups as well as the groups in PNG that have some exposure to western music,” Dr Smit said.

There may be no “universal effect of major harmony on melody on reported happiness,” Dr Smit further said, adding that the evidence from the one PNG group with minimal exposure to western music was not enough to be certain about a confirmation or denial of this result.

“The results show that the emotive valence of major and minor is strongly associated with exposure to western-influenced music and culture, although we cannot exclude the possibility of universality,” researchers wrote in the study.



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