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.

Conversely, it has also been proposed that the aversion to highly jarring sounds has a biological substrate because of how the human hearing works: unpleasant sounds crate interference in the inner ear that is perceived as unpleasant. However, it seems that the reason behind this apparent preference for some chords over others is shaped by our everyday exposure and familiarity with our musical culture. For this reason we explored the biological and cultural claims by investigating how the two remote tribes residing in Northwest Pakistan rated chords varying in dissonance, and had their responses compared to those of Western listeners.

Members of the Pakistani tribes did not indicate a preference for the most common of Western chords, the major chord. They did however like the minor chord which is far more common in their music than the major chord; this pattern is notably the opposite to Western music. In contrast, both Pakistani and Western listeners disliked the most jarring and dissonant of the played chords, supporting the claim that acoustically very dissonant chords are universally unpleasant.

This aversion stems from a purely biologically determined auditory sensation: highly dissonant chords create a jarring sound which the auditory system cannot fully resolve; this unpleasant feeling is akin to the flickering of light in the eyes. Results such as these sharpen our focus regarding what aspects of sound perception are biologically determined and which are products of our cultures.

Our research has been published in the open-access journals PLOS ONE, and NYAS, and was further disseminated at the 16th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition/11th triennial conference of ESCOM. See presentations by George Athanasopoulos on the influence of harmonic background of melody to perceived emotions and Imre Lahdelma on the cross-cultural comparison of chords. The research is directed under the supervision of Tuomas Eerola.

This research has been featured in The Conversation. For further popular news media regarding this project see here and here. You can also hear our researcher George Athanasopoulos talk about the project on BBC Radio Newcastle – Stories to make you smile and Make a Difference, to the late (and dearly missed!) Lisa Shaw here.

This project has received funding from a COFUND/Marie Curie scholarship awarded to George Athanasopoulos, and further supported by a Durham University’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities Pro-Vice-Chancellor’s award. Imre Lahdelma is supported by the Ella and Georg Ehrnrooth Foundation.

Play a game to see what your chord preferences are!

Try out your own chord preferences with a game and compare them to the findings of the research here:

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.