“Music is the universal language of mankind,” said Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the 19th century. A recent study appearing in Frontiers in Psychology (2015; doi:10.3389/ fpsyg.2014.01341) supports this observation.
Researchers from McGill University and Université de Montréal, both in Montreal, and from Technische Universität Berlin, in Berlin, compared the reactions of adult Congolese Pygmies and musically trained Canadian adults from Montreal to popular Western cultural music and traditional Pygmy vocal pieces. Study participants rated each selection by emotional reaction—happy, sad, calm or excited.
“Our major discovery is that listeners from very different groups both responded to how exciting or calming they felt the music to be in similar ways,” said lead study author Hauke Egermann, PhD, currently at Technische Universität Berlin, in a McGill University news release. “This is probably due to certain low-level aspects of music such as tempo (or beat), pitch (how high or low the music is on the scale) and timbre (tone color or quality), but this will need further research.”
The primary contrast in reaction among the two groups was that the Canadians noted a broader range of emotional responses when listening to Western cultural choices than the Pygmies experienced when they listened to either the Western music or their own. Researchers think this variance reflects the different role that music plays in the respective cultures.
Study author Stephen McAdams, PhD, from McGill’s Schulich School of Music, added, “People have been trying to figure out for quite a while whether the way that we react to music is based on the culture that we come from or on some universal features of the music itself. Now we know that it is actually a bit of both.”