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 isn’t universal but could be influenced by their culture, according to a new study.

The research, published Thursday in the log PLoS One, analyzed 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 viewed in the same way by remote communities in Papua New Guinea (PNG), scientists, including those at the University of Western Sydney in Australia, have found.

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

The scientists played recordings pairing a major melody and a minor melody, or cadence, to participants, who indicated which melody made them happy.

“Participants listened to pairs of chords and melodies, varying in major or minor and middle pitch, and were asked which of the pair was happiest,” the study co-author tweeted. , Eline Smith.

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 adults than minors in all communities except those with minimal exposure to Western-style music.

“For communities in PNG, we find strong evidence that greater happiness was reported for adults than for minors in all but one community: the community least exposed to Western-style music,” said Dr Smith.

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

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

“We find compelling evidence that familiarity plays an important role in the association between major [notes] and happiness for bands in Sydney as well as bands in PNG who have some exposure to Western music,” said Dr Smit.

There may not be “a universal effect of major harmony over melody on reported happiness”, added Dr Smit, adding that evidence from the only PNG group with minimal exposure to Western music were not sufficient to be certain of confirmation or denial. results.

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