Whether you’re a Pygmy in the Congolese rainforest or a big-city hipster, certain aspects of music will touch you in the same ways—but others very differently, a study suggests.
“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,” said co-researcher Stephen McAdams of McGill University in Montreal. “Now we know that it is actually a bit of both.”
The researchers traveled deep into the rainforest to play music to a very isolated people, the Mbenzélé Pygmies, who live without radio, television or electricity. They then compared how the Mbenzélé responded both to their own and to unfamiliar Western music, with how Canadians in downtown Montreal responded to the same pieces.
They found that the two groups were similar in their responses to how exciting or calming they found the music to be—but differed regarding whether specific pieces made them feel good or bad. The Pygmies tended to rate everything, even “scary” music, as making them happy, according to the study, published in the research journal Frontiers in Psychology.
The investigators played 19 short musical extracts (11 western and 8 Pygmy) of between about 30 and 90 seconds to 40 Pygmies and an equal number of Canadians. Because all the Mbenzélé Pygmies sing regularly for ceremonial purposes, the Canadians recruited for the study were all either amateur or professional musicians.
The Western music was designed to induce a range of emotions from calm to excited, and from happy to anxious or sad, and included both orchestral music and excerpts from three popular films (Psycho, Star Wars, and Schindler’s List).
The Pygmy pieces were all polyphonic (multiple-voiced) vocal pieces that are fairly upbeat and tend to be performed in ceremonial contexts to calm anger, or express comfort after a death, for example, or to bid good fortune before a hunting expedition leaves the village, or even to pacify a crying child.
The researchers used emoticons with smiling or frowning faces at each end of a continuum to get people to identify whether the music made them feel good or bad. They also asked participants to rate whether the music made them feel calm (close-eyed emoticon) or excited (open-eyed face). As participants listened, various measurements were also taken such as heart rate, rate of respiration, and amount of sweat on the palms.
“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 Hauke Egermann of the Technische Universität in Berlin, who did part of the research while at McGill University in Montreal. “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 main difference between Pygmy and Canadian listeners, the researchers said, was that the Canadians described themselves as feeling a much wider range of emotions as they listened to the Western music than the Pygmies felt when listening to either their own or Western music. This is probably attributable to the varying roles that music plays in each culture.
“Negative emotions are felt to disturb the harmony of the forest in Pygmy culture and are therefore dangerous,” said Nathalie Fernando of the University of Montreal’s Faculty of Music, who has been collecting and documenting Mbenzélé music-making for 10 years. “If a baby is crying, the Mbenzélé will sing a happy song. If the men are scared of going hunting, they will sing a happy song—in general music is used in this culture to evacuate all negative emotions, so it is not really surprising that the Mbenzélé feel that all the music they hear makes them feel good.”