Western adults and children reliably perceive major chords and melodies as ‘bright and happy’, whereas minor chords are typically heard as ‘dark and sad’. Some argue this emotional impact is universal across the world, perhaps owed to the physical characteristics of these harmonies that provoke a distinct pattern of activity in the brain’s emotional centers. However, people living in remote communities in Papua New Guinea who have minimal or no exposure to Western music do not share this emotional valence to major and minor chords, suggesting that our emotional reaction to pitch and harmony is more culturally mediated than previously thought and likely not universal.
What makes a song ‘happy’?
The simplest major chord, known as a major triad, is made from the first, third, and fifth notes of a major scale played together, while a minor triad has the same configuration except the middle note is lowered by a semitone, meaning either one white or black key to the left on a piano.
Experiments suggest that psychoacoustic features, such as harmonicity, roughness, spectral entropy, and average pitch height, play a major role in how we perceive and emotionally interpret music. These findings suggest that there is something intrinsic about the quality of major and minor music that produces a consistent reaction in humans, thereby making it universal. There’s just one problem though: more and more evidence shows this link breaks down once you look at people who haven’t been exposed to Western music and its 12-tone tempered diatonic music.
Previously, studies found that while people familiar with Western music had a predictable emotional valence to Western harmonies, those in remote communities without access to media, such as the Mebenze´le´ Pygmies in Congo, Tsimane’ in Bolivia, and Khow and Kalash in Pakistan did not seem to share the same response. Even so, the debate regarding whether harmony perception is inborn or trained with exposure to diatonic music is far from settled.
Even though studies on remote communities show emotional valence to harmonies cannot be as easily predicted as in Westerners, their methods did not involve Bayesian statistics, a particular approach to applying probability to statistical problems that is better suited to quantifying evidence for the absence of an effect — in this case, the lack of a predictable emotional interpretation to major or minor scale music.
Researchers at the University of Konstanz in Germany, Western Sydney University in Australia, and the Australian National University, filled this gap. They employed a Bayesian approach to the results of experiments conducted in a very remote region of Papua New Guinea, across several communities that shared similar traditional music but had minimal exposure to Western-style music and tonal sounds.
“The main finding of the study is that the degree of familiarity with major and minor music plays a large role in people attributing happiness to major and sadness to minor. Thus, the higher your familiarity, the more likely you are to behave this way. However, our results cannot exclude the possibility that those without any familiarity with major and minor music may also perceive major as happy and minor as sad. This appears to be the case, but we need to do more research in order to be certain,” Eline Adrianne Smit, lead author of the new study and a researcher at the University of Konstanz and Western Sydney University, told ZME Science.
Researchers made arduous trips to seven different villages in the Uruwa River valley in Papua New Guinea, a remote cloud forest area that is only accessible by plane or a three-day hike. Although the locals have access to some Western technology and information their lifestyle is very much traditional. They lack electricity, a market economy, or the internet, but are nevertheless content with their lives. They were also especially welcoming and collaborative with the researchers.
“We were fortunate that the trip was planned and organized by our linguist colleague Hannah Sarvasy who has had a long-term relationship with the village of Towet and has been adopted as a clan member. She has studied the language within the region, which is called Nungon, that is spoken by only about 1,000 people across six villages in the Uruwa river valley and was also able to translate for us. Research is always a team effort, especially in this case in particular. We have received help from so many different angles, in Australia as well as in Papua New Guinea, and we are very grateful for that,” said Smit, who is a trained classical pianist and previously published research on the emotional perception in unfamiliar music for her Ph.D.
“I’d like to highlight the warmth of the community and how much we were welcomed into the village. I have never experienced such hospitality and I feel very grateful that we were so welcomed into their community. When we arrived, the entire village was waiting for us to help us walk the steep slopes from the plane’s landing site to the village (which was a very tricky hike with steep slippery slopes, rocks, and lots of descending and climbing). When we arrived in the town, we were greeted with lots of smiles and flowers. I still think very fondly of everyone I met there,” she added.
How music is heard in a remote cloud forest
The people of the Uruwa River valley are accustomed to three genres of music, each present in a certain part of the Uruwa valley, though some styles may overlap in other places. These are traditional non-Western-style songs, Western-influenced stringben (‘string band’ in Tok Pisin, the Papua New Guinea lingua franca); and Western church hymns brought by Lutheran or Seventh-day Adventist missionaries. The traditional songs are very different from Western music, involving melodies that generally do not exceed a perfect fifth in range and inconsistent interval sizes.
This means there are also three distinct groups of Uruwa with different levels of exposure to Western-style music: the minimal exposure group (non-churchgoers), the Lutheran exposure group (regular Lutheran church-goers who have exposure to major harmonies and melodies, but less exposure to minor ones), and the Seventh-day Adventist exposure group (which has exposure to a wider palette of Western harmonies compared to the Lutheran group).
Researchers presented 170 Uruwa people with 12 different pairs of major and minor chord progressions, known as cadences, commonly used in Western music, as well as 30 different pairs of melodies written in different modes (Phrygian, Æolian, Dorian, Mixolydian, Ionian, and Lydian). Additionally, the researchers repeated the same experiment with 60 non-musicians and 19 musicians in Sydney, Australia. Upon hearing the recordings, the participants had to answer whether or not the tune made them feel happy.
The Bayesian analyses of the results showed that, for melodies, participants associated major melodies with higher happiness than those with minor melodies in both Sydney groups and only one of the three Uruwa groups. For cadences, greater happiness was reported for major than minor in every community except the group with minimal exposure to Western-style music. All in all, the findings suggest that the self-reported emotional effects of major and minor music are strongly associated with exposure to Western or Western-style music, although the researchers cannot rule out entirely the possibility of universality. Instead, major and minor melodies may affect us due to familiarity and association.
One aspect of musical perception that may indeed be universal among all groups of people has to do with “stability”, which refers to the notion that certain chords naturally want to move to other chords to create a sense of resolution.
“We are soon submitting another paper based on a different part of this Papua New Guinea experiment that focuses on another aspect of music that may or may not be universal. In this experiment, we asked participants about the “stability” of different types of chords. For listeners from Western cultures, the perceived stability (consonance/dissonance) of chords differs by their type. For example, we expect dissonant/unstable augmented and diminished chords to resolve to consonant/stable major and minor chords. For these “stability” responses, we get quite different conclusions compared to the just-reported “happiness” responses. We find that an acoustic feature called roughness (which results from frequency components in the sound that are too close together to be resolved by the cochlea) predicts stability responses across every group including the Papua New Guinea group with minimal exposure to Western music. This suggests a universal association between acoustical roughness and instability. It also suggests that there may be universal aspects of harmony for descriptive responses (such as stability) but not for valenced responses (like happy and sad),” said Smit.
In the future, the researchers plan on conducting more experiments across a wide variety of cultures to explore how various musical features evoke different responses.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.