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Western Music Affects People Worldwide


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By Margarita Nahapetyan

New scientific evidence suggests that three basic emotions that evoke after listening to Western music, affect people all over the globe, regardless of their religion, culture or habits.

Researchers claim that native African people who have never ever listened to the radio in their lives, recognized happiness, sadness and fearful emotions when listening to Western tunes. This finding appears to be the first solid evidence to show that there is a universal human ability to distinguish basic emotions in music, a cognitive scientist Thomas Fritz of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, said in a news release.

In some musical traditions, music is appreciated for qualities that are not based on emotions, such as group coordination rituals, the researchers explained. Fritz and his colleagues, including Stefan Koelsch of the University of Sussex, launched their study in order to figure out whether the emotional aspects of Western music could be appreciated by individuals who had no prior knowledge of it. There have been other studies that included people with little experience about a particular musical form, for example Westerners listening to Hindustani music, the scientists said. But to really get at musical universals requires individuals who are completely unaware of Western music.

For their two experiments, the experts recruited members of the Mafa, one of about 250 ethnic groups in Cameroon, who have never been exposed to Western music. Thomas Fritz traveled to the extreme north of the Mandara mountain ranges, where the participants lived, with a laptop and sun collector to supply electricity in the backpack.

In experiment number one, 21 Mafa representatives, with the ages between 37 and 90 years old, listened to a series of short piano pieces through headphones. Volunteers were asked to indicate the emotion they experienced after each passage by pointing to one of the three facial images. Images showed a woman with a happy, sad or fearful expression on her face. The researchers carried out the same experiment involving 20 Westerners with the ages between 40 and 68.

Fritz found that overall, Mafa participants recognized about 2 out of 3 parts that he had created to sound happy and half of the sad and fearful parts. That would be more often than would have been expected to happen by chance. Western volunteers correctly identified emotions corresponding to almost all musical pieces.

In experiment number two, 43 Mafa and 20 Western adults were asked to rate how much they liked or did not like pieces of Western instrumental music, as well as recordings of Mafa flute playing during rituals. Volunteers also listened to manipulated 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. The scientists revealed that both Western listeners and African listeners found original music more pleasant, compared to altered versions. That preference could probably be explained, partly, by the increased sensory dissonance of the manipulated tunes.

The experts concluded that African and Western listeners alike recognized the same 3 emotions in the music: happiness, sadness, and fear. And the participants in both groups made their judgments based on timing of the music and on mode. Mafa volunteers were more likely to think of faster pieces as happy and slower pieces as scared or fearful.

The findings are printed in the current issue of the journal Current Biology.

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