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Emotions of Music Touch Universal Chord

No matter the culture, people recognize most basic feelings in unfamiliar tunes

THURSDAY, March 19 (HealthDay News) -- Michael Jackson may have been more prescient than he realized when he wrote the lyrics to the global "feel-good" song, We Are the World.

New research recognizes that people from vastly different cultures and heritages respond to the same happy, sad and scared emotions in unfamiliar music.

This suggests the universality of emotions in music and may help explain why Western music has been adopted so ubiquitously worldwide, said the authors, from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany.

"We know that our auditory system responds in distinctive ways to consonant and dissonant sounds, even when we're not actively listening to them," said Nina Kraus, Hugh Knowles professor of communication sciences, neurobiology, physiology and otolaryngology at Northwestern University in Chicago. "It's fascinating how our sensory systems have evolved to respond effectively to sounds that signal what's important, such as emotional meaning."

Kraus was not involved with the study, which is published in the March 19 online issue of Current Biology.

"There are fundamental acoustic features that communicate basic emotions similarly in both speech and music. Much of the meaning we get from music is not so much reliant on musical structure, but rather how it --the music -- is performed," said Dana Strait, a doctoral candidate in the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, also at Northwestern University. "It's the same with speech-- it's not the actual words spoken, but more how they're said that communicates emotion."

"The question of 'musical universals' has triggered intense debate in our field for years," she continued. "It intrigues us in part because of its implications for music being 'built in' to the human genome. These outcomes move us yet another step closer toward defining biological mechanisms driving the human music obsession."

Previous research has determined that babies as young as 5 months old can distinguish between upbeat and gloomy music, providing more evidence that the brain's ability to detect emotion develops early.

For this study, researchers trekked to the far reaches of mountainous northern Cameroon and asked members of the Mafa ethnic group to participate.

A group of Mafa listened with headphones to computer-generated piano music with different tempos, pitch range, rhythm, etc. The music was played on a sun-powered CD (the Mafa don't have electricity).

Meanwhile, a group of Westerners who had not before heard African music listened to a sequence of Mafa music.

Both groups were then asked to rate the music as pleasant or unpleasant.

Africans and Westerners alike recognized the same three emotions in the music: happy, sad, and scared or fearful. And both made their judgments based on timing of the music and on mode.

Mafa participants were more likely to think of faster pieces as happy and slower pieces as scared or fearful.

More information

Visit Northwestern University for information on neural encoding of music.

SOURCES: Nina Kraus, Ph.D., Hugh Knowles professor, communication sciences, neurobiology and physiology, otolaryngology, Northwestern University, Chicago; Dana Strait, doctoral candidate, Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, Northwestern University, Chicago; March 19, 2009, Current Biology, online

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