It’s the climax of the movie. The protagonist’s love interest is mortally wounded, their dog has run off, and for some reason it’s now raining. To drive home the fact it’s a gut-wrenching moment, the music is now playing in a somber minor key.
New research suggests there could be some in the audience who don’t find the score quite as emotionally impactful.
Experiments conducted by a team of scientists from Western Sydney University suggest we might only experience music as joyful or depressing thanks to a history of global influences of dominant musical cultures.
From pop music to Hollywood soundtracks, harmonies and melodies typically resonate with a more cheerful, uplifting mood if its notes or chords progress in a fashion described as major.
A tune that progresses a little more languidly between crucial notes is described as minor. It’s the sound of break-up songs, pensive moments during soaps, and tear-jerker scenes in the movies.
The relationship between major progressions and positive feelings (and sad emotions with minor ones) is so ubiquitous throughout the Western world, it’s easy to assume there’s something fundamentally biological going on.
The origins of this connection are a complete mystery, though. Some speculate it could have something to do with a certain dissonance in minor tonality, like a staircase with the occasional half-step thrown in just to make us stumble.
Alternatively, it could have something to do with an averaging of the pitches in a piece triggering a more primal response, where the overall impression is akin to vocalizations mimicking friend or foe.
If either of these hypotheses were to be true, the emotions of music should be universal experiences. However, several studies involving remote communities that hadn’t been exposed to much Western music have delivered mixed results.
In an attempt to produce more definitive evidence on whether melodies pluck at our heart strings in the same way regardless of musical exposure, the researchers behind this latest study took to remote regions of Papua New Guinea with music recordings consisting of cadences in major and minor keys.
A total of 170 adults from the Uruwa River Valley were paid to take part in the survey, listening to recorded snippets of music that varied in mean pitch, cadence, mode and timbre. All the participants had to do was listen to two of the samples and tell the researchers whether one made them feel happy.
Tucked away in the folds of a mountainous landscape, the villages in the region don’t exactly have easy access to Spotify.
What little influence of Western music they’ve had is largely woven into hymns of Lutheran missionaries, with the resulting songs known as ‘stringben’ in the pidgin language.
With varying access to churches, virtually no direct exposure to Western music traditions, and different customs on engaging with music of various types, the population provides a unique opportunity to test whether a difference in tonality induces a shared emotional experience.
As a countermeasure, the researchers also conducted the same study in a soundproof room in Sydney, Australia. Virtually all of the 79 volunteers were regular listeners of Western music (apart from one who was more a fan of Arabic music).
Based on what’s known as Bayesian statistical inferences, the results strongly indicate the self-reported emotional responses to the mean pitch of a piece of music have more to do with previous exposure to Westernized music than something more universal.
It’s possible the emotions imposed by the last few chords of a musical piece still might have a non-cultural origin, based on limitations in the evidence among the Uruwa Valley villagers.
Taken together, however, the study’s results show no indication that our shared response of happiness to major chords is buried in our biology.
How particular music traditions became associated with emotional language is a question yet to be settled.
Humans and some of our closest relatives have been playing music for tens of thousands of years, if not far longer. We play it at funerals, at weddings, during our storytelling, or when we’re alone with our thoughts, making its practice hard to tease apart from its cultural backdrop.
As our cultures evolve, so will our music.
This research was published in PLOS One.