Feelings, universal musical feelings

African farmers who shun Western culture demonstrate widespread recognition of three basic emotions in music

Hear audio samples that were used in this study.

Cameroon’s Mafa farmers don’t know U2 from YouTube, and that’s how they like it. So it comes as a scientific revelation that, according to a new study, these Africans who are cocooned from Western culture recognize expressions of happiness, sadness and fear in the same musical passages that Westerners do.

Thomas Fritz poses with two Mafa women, members of an African farming group that provided the German researcher with evidence for the universal recognition of basic emotions in music. Fritz
A Mafa man listens to musical pieces through headphones as his wife and child, as well as researcher Thomas Fritz, wait for him to complete the experimental task. Fritz

This finding provides the first solid evidence for a universal human ability to distinguish basic emotions in music, asserts a team led by cognitive scientist Thomas Fritz of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany.

“I was quite amazed that the Mafa accurately categorized basic emotions in pieces of Western music on the first listen,” Fritz says.

His team’s investigation indicates that Mafa and Western listeners similarly derive emotional meaning from the tempo and key of musical passages. Both groups tended to classify fast-paced pieces as happy and slow ones as scared or fearful, and mostly agreed on which passages were sad, but assigned no particular tempo with them. Mafa and Westerners also generally regarded major-key pieces as happy, minor-key excerpts as fearful and passages with an indeterminate key as sad.

Mafa music exclusively expresses joy and happiness. Village revelers blow fervently through flutes made of iron, clay and wax at various rituals, including a harvest event. No word exists in the Mafa language for music, which is viewed as an inseparable element of ritual.

In another finding, both groups of volunteers preferred excerpts of Western and Mafa music to altered versions of the same excerpts that sounded dissonant, Fritz and his colleagues report in a paper published online March 19 and set to appear in the April 14 Current Biology. Western music uses increasingly dissonant chords to build emotional tension, which gets resolved by returning to a consonant chord.

“Our data indicate that another basic principle of emotion-induction in Western music — consonance and dissonance — also has universal emotional effects,” says psychologist and study coauthor Stefan Koelsch, also of the Max Planck Institute.

The new findings fit with earlier indications that people interpret certain acoustic cues to emotion in the same ways, whether those cues appear in speech or music, remarks cognitive scientist Josh McDermott of New York University, who studies music perception. Those earlier studies were focused on lab investigations of people who had previously heard Western music. Nonverbal elements of language that communicate emotion, such as rhythm and intonation, probably work similarly in music, in McDermott’s view.

What’s surprising is that Mafa and Western participants connected major and minor keys to the same emotions, although such cross-cultural consistency has not always appeared in earlier studies, McDermott says. “This is something that is pretty clearly not universal, so perhaps it is a coincidence that the Mafa responded similarly,” he comments.

Fritz learned of the African group through a Mafa woman living in Amsterdam, who later assisted him in translating instructions for his experimental tasks into the Mafa language. In 2006, he traveled to northern Cameroon’s Mandara mountain range, where the Mafa live, carrying a solar device to power his laptop computer. Mafa-speaking assistants from Cameroon translated for Fritz once he contacted the remote farmers.

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.

In Fritz’s first experiment, 21 Mafas, ranging from about 37 to 90 years old, listened to a series of short piano pieces through headphones. Participants indicated the emotion expressed by each passage by pointing to one of three facial images. Images showed a woman displaying a happy, sad or fearful facial expression.

Fritz separately administered the same task to 20 German adults, ages 40 to 68.

Overall, Mafa volunteers recognized about two out of three pieces that the researchers had created to sound happy and half of the sad and fearful pieces. That’s well above the one out of three correct that guessing would have yielded. German volunteers correctly identified emotions corresponding to nearly all musical pieces.

In a second experiment, 43 Mafa and 20 German adults rated how much they liked or disliked pieces of Western instrumental music and recordings of Mafa flute playing during rituals. Participants also heard an altered version of each musical piece that consisted of the original tune played synchronously with two pitch-shifted versions of the same tune, creating both a more complex and slightly dissonant sound.

“This sort of study is getting harder to do, as there are fewer and fewer cultures that have not been invaded by Western music,” McDermott says. Fritz has some leads on such groups but first plans to study Mafa music perception in more detail.

MAFA MUSIC (Pleasant)
In a cross-cultural study of people’s ability to recognize cues to basic emotions in music, both German and Mafa adults rated this passage of Mafa music as sounding relatively pleasant.

MAFA MUSIC (Dissonant)
In contrast, German and Mafa volunteers agreed that the same passage of Mafa music, digitally altered so that it sounded dissonant, was not as enjoyable to listen to as the previous version.

German participants rated this piece of Western instrumental music as pleasant to listen to, as did Mafa villagers who had never before heard Western music of any kind.

A version of the same Western musical passage, digitally altered to sound dissonant, was rated as unpleasant to listen to by both German and Mafa volunteers, consistent with their previous unpleasant ratings for dissonant Mafa musical excerpts.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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