Music has the ability to communicate and induce emotions worldwide. Cross-cultural research has established that basic emotions can be communicated across cultures through music, at least on a rudimentary level of recognition.

However, our new research shows that western associations such as the major-happy/minor-sad distinction, is strongly influenced by the cultural background of the listeners.

After conducting experiments with two remote tribes in Northwest Pakistan and the United Kingdom, we have discovered that Western emotional concepts linked with specific modes are not relevant for participants unexposed to Western music, particularly when other emotional cues such as tempo, timbre and loudness, are kept constant.

At the same time, harmonic style alone has the ability to colour the emotional expression in music, but only if it taps into the cultural connotations of the listener.

We were interested to explore how participants assessed emotional connotations of Western and non-Western music and harmonization styles, and whether cultural familiarity within specific modes and genres (major and minor among them) would consistently relate to emotion communication.

Our findings provide insights not only into intriguing cultural variation regarding how western-style harmonisations are perceived across cultures, but also into a striking similarity across cultures: Acoustic roughness, an important acoustic phenomenon which typically renders sounds unattractive for western listeners, influenced the expression of anger similarly across cultures.

This is particularly interesting in the light that previous research has demonstrated a link between roughness and anger in speech perception in the case of western listeners – the current study’s finding that this tendency is present across cultures and not only in speech but also in music is quite remarkable.

The research, published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, was funded by a COFUND/Marie Curie scholarship to George Athanasopoulos, and further supported by Durham University’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities Pro-Vice-Chancellor’s award.

Photos from the fieldwork in Northwest Pakistan

These are photos taken by George Athanasopoulos during his stay at Northwest Pakistan. The research team acknowledges the essential contribution of Mr. Taleem Khan Kalash and his colleagues (Ekbal Shah, Haroon Khan, Saif Ul Islam, Zahir Shah) who worked effortlessly in the field as translators and for their assistance in recruitment, and to Inspector Maikal Shahrakat for liaising with the local authorities. Many thanks also go to Ishfaq Ahmed Sagar for the invaluable information he provided regarding the music of Chitral. Special thanks go to the Kalash and Khow tribes for their participation, and to the Republic of Pakistan (police districts of Chitral and Bumburet) for providing security during fieldwork.

Video compilation from Kalash and Khow tribes

Music recordings from NW Pakistan

Kalash non-ritual flute and drum music. Western listeners rated this type of music with a 2.6 out of 5 as expressing Joy on a 5 point Likert scale, whereas Kalash and Khow listeners gave it a score of 4.5/5 and 4.2/5 respectively.
Kalash honorary/praise song. The majority of listeners perceived stimuli of this genre to express sadness. In addition to this, Western listeners perceived Kalash ritual music to moderately express anger (2.2/5).
Khow mahfil song (in Major mode according to the Western tonal system). Western listeners perceived this particular stimulus to express joy (3.7/5) at a much higher level than Kalash (2.4/5) and Khow (2.3/5) listeners respectively.